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Three new COVID-19 deaths reported in McLennan County, one in nursing home

Three more McLennan County residents have died from COVID-19 complications, including one who lived in a long-term care facility, bringing the county total to 42, the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District announced Wednesday.

The three people who died Wednesday include a 75-year-old Black man, an 87-year-old white woman and an 84-year-old Latino man. The woman died in a long-term care facility, health district spokesperson Kelly Craine said.

The health district has reported 33 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in July, following a surge in the number of people testing positive for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, Waco City Manager Bradley Ford said in a weekly press conference on the local COVID-19 situation with other area leaders.

McLennan County also reported three deaths attributed to COVID-19 on Tuesday, including a 91-year-old Black man, a 72-year-old white man and an 84-year-old white man.

On Wednesday, the health district reported 84 more people tested positive for COVID-19, leaving the county total at 4,192. An estimated 1,982 people have active infections. Local hospitals are treating 64 COVID-19 patients, 49 of whom are McLennan County residents. Of the 64, 15 people are on ventilators, according to the health district.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Waco Family Health Center CEO Dr. Jackson Griggs said 18 people “associated with long-term care facilities” have died from COVID-19 complications. Sixteen facilities in McLennan County have reported at least one resident testing positive for COVID-19, with a total of 328 people in long-term care facilities who have tested positive since March, Griggs said.

The state withheld the names of nursing home and long-term care facilities where workers and residents had tested positive for COVID-19 until Monday, but the data listed on the state Health and Human Services Commission website is incomplete, lagging behind local numbers by at least two weeks.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has been releasing preliminary data on COVID-19 in nursing homes, the most recent from July 12. At least eight McLennan County nursing homes had confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 among their residents as of that date, according to the website.

Local facilities

Three nursing home facilities have reported deaths related to COVID-19: Ridgecrest Retirement Community, Lakeshore Village Healthcare Center and Woodland Springs Nursing Center. Both Lakeshore Village and Woodland Springs reported one death, while Ridgecrest reported two, according to the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services website.

Other facilities that reported residents testing positive for COVID-19 include Greenview Manor, Regent Care Center and Wesley Woods Rehabilitation and Healthcare. Both Greenview Manor and Regent Care reported one resident testing positive, while Wesley Woods reported two residents with COVID-19. Ridgecrest reported 23 residents with the disease, the most of any facility listed on the CMS website, and Lakeshore Village reported 15 residents testing positive.

Woodland Springs reported five confirmed residents who tested positive for COVID-19 and another 14 residents suspected of having the disease, as of July 12. St. Catherine Center reported 12 residents suspected of having COVID-19, and The Brazos of Waco reported five residents who may have the disease.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Waco-McLennan County Health Authority Dr. Farley Verner addressed the cancellation of a July 21 order postponing the start of in-person classes and other on-campus K-12 school activities until after Labor Day. Verner rescinded the order late Tuesday, after state Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion letter stating local health authorities do not have the power to close schools as a preventive measure.

“Regardless of whether the attorney general’s opinion is correct that a local health authority does not have the authority to close schools on a purely preventative basis, a public fight over this issue would only be more polarizing at a time when cooperation is needed,” Verner said.

Paxton’s guidance

Late Wednesday, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath released a statement on Paxton’s guidance on blanket school closure orders that said school districts will continue to receive full funding from the state if they have to close a school building because of a confirmed COVID-19 case during the school year. Schools would still have to provide remote instruction in that situation, up to five days unless a local health authority orders a campus closed for longer.

McLennan County has reported fewer people testing positive for COVID-19 each day, indicating the local case count is trending downward, Verner said. The rolling seven-day average of people testing positive is 76, similar to the numbers the county saw in early June before a surge in cases.

But McLennan County’s positivity rate, or the percentage of tests that come back positive, is still higher than the state average, which is concerning, Ford, the city manager, said. McLennan County’s positivity rate is 18%, while the state’s is 13%.

Additionally, Ford said, the number of people requiring treatment in a hospital has not decreased as much as the number of people testing positive each day.

“I don’t want you to think that a reducing case count or daily cases should make you feel safe or make you make less vigilant choices about how you wear a mask or who you go to see, because our hospitalizations and deaths have not yet told us it’s time to reduce our vigilance against COVID-19,” he said.

Griggs said McLennan County’s reproduction rate, or the number of people someone with COVID-19 is likely to infect, is less than 1, based on calculations from the University of Texas School of Public Health and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Both calculations place the reproduction rate in the 0.8 range, which indicate a slowing spread of the coronavirus, he said.

At the McLennan County Jail complex, one inmate and two workers are currently sick with COVID-19, County Judge Scott Felton said during the press conference. The health district tested all inmates and staff and received the results of those tests earlier this month. Dozens of inmates and dozens of jail workers tested positive.

Ford said the health district has no record of a health care provider transmitting COVID-19 to a patient, other than at nursing homes. Health care facilities must report any confirmed positive COVID-19 test results to the health district, including hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities.

A Waco Municipal Court employee tested positive for the disease three weeks ago, leading to the temporary closure of the court. Ford said three workers at the municipal court tested positive, and the city expects to reopen the court Monday, after the spaces have been disinfected and all workers have been released for work by their doctors.

At least 25 city employees, out of more than 1,500, have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of June, Ford said. Eleven employees are still quarantined, including two who are awaiting their test results and three who have been instructed to isolate themselves.

Two Waco police officers have been working with businesses and their visitors on complying with the governor’s mask order, which requires anyone over age 10 to wear a mask in public. The officers have visited about 70 businesses and issued 10 warnings to people not wearing masks, but they have not issued any citations or fines, Ford said.

Waco artists, businesses send mask message through mural campaign

Windows and walls in downtown Waco will remind COVID-19-mindful residents to wear their masks and face coverings, thanks to a project connecting Waco artists, businesses and organizations.

The #wacosafe project has more than a dozen local artists painting and chalking images at downtown locations to spread the word, in a nice way, that masks slow the spread of coronavirus.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Fate King works on her “Multitask — Wear a Mask” octopus mural painted on the glass front of the Waco ISD Administration offices in downtown Waco.

Employed are images of kissing bears, ninjas, butterfly wings, Tejana superstar Selena, a reimagined Rosie the Riveter, an octopus and film director Spike Lee.

Arts nonprofit Creative Waco pitched the idea to the city’s COVID-19 strategic communications group headed by Waco Foundation communications director Natalie Kelinske and city Councilman Hector Sabido as a way to get the masking message out in the community.

With artists receiving a $400 commission for their work and materials, provided by donations and some money from the Waco Foundation’s Beautification Fund, the #wacosafe project also supports the Waco arts community during a COVID-19 slowdown and draws some attention to small businesses and organizations.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Tahla Tran works on a larger-than-life mask for her mural, “Let Your Eyes Do the Talking,” on a window of the Waco ISD administration building along Franklin Avenue.

Kelinske said the project, which began this week at the Waco Independent School District’s downtown administrative offices, offered a new way to emphasize the current medical advice on widespread masking as the best way to slow coronavirus spread.

For Creative Waco executive director Fiona Bond, the masking murals and their use of colorful and playful visuals put a positive spin on the message, inviting participation. It also provides viewers a local connection in both the artist and the location, Kelinske added.

In addition to Waco ISD office windows, masking art will be going up at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Central Texas African-American Chamber of Commerce; Waco restaurants and eateries Milo, Pinewood Coffee Bar and Waco Cha; the Family Health Center; and Waco City Hall.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Aubrey Krumnow (right) works on her mural “Peace Kindness Love — From a distance” with help from Andrew Riddle at the Waco ISD administration building downtown.

The #wacosafe effort has room for more artists, participating businesses and donations, Bond said, and those interested can contact Creative Waco.

The wall art not only communicates through a different medium, but is tailor-made for amplification on social media, Kelinske observed.

“It’s bright and it’s colorful — what a great place to take a picture in front of,” she said.

PHOTOS: Masking murals — #wacosafe project connects Waco artists, community

Coronavirus cases in Texas nursing homes more than doubled in July

COVID-19 infections have exploded in Texas nursing homes this month, with 8,291 confirmed cases through Monday — four times more than the number ofcases recorded in all of June, according to the state’s health agency.

More than three quarters of Texas’ 1,215 nursing homes have reported at least one coronavirus case since the beginning of the pandemic, up from just over half at the end of June.

It’s the same story in the state’s assisted living facilities, which reported 924 cases to the Texas Department of State Health Services through Monday, compared with 267 in June.

Of Texas’ 5,713 deaths, one-third have been nursing home residents. Nationally, more than 40% of COVID-19 deaths are linked to senior-care centers, according to a New York Times analysis.

The dramatic increase in the number of new COVID-19 cases across Texas is what has led to the surge in nursing homes, said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

On Monday, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission released its first list of COVID-19 cases and deaths with details about individual Texas nursing homes — after insisting for months that the information was not subject to public disclosure because of privacy laws. The state attorney general’s office recently ruled that the agency is required to release the information.

Texas initially required all nursing home residents and staff members to be tested, but it has since switched to less sweeping, targeted testing.

By June 11, Texas hadcompleted an initial, monthlong round of mandatory testing in all Texas nursing facilities. On July 10, a new round of targeted testing was announced in partnership with a CVS Health company called Omnicare, with a goal of processing 100,000 tests in the first month. Health and Human Services Commission inspectors are identifying facilities with outbreaks that are in need of testing, said Kelli Weldon, press officer for HHSC. Individual facilities can also ask for testing.

Statewide testing numbersSo far in July, the state has tested residents and staff members at 148 facilities, with 93 more facilities scheduled through the end of the month, Weldon said. That’s about 7% of all Texas long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

Weldon said testing is conducted at facilities with at least one confirmed coronavirus case. This testing can be requested from the facilities or through the Quick Reaction Force testing teams operated in collaboration with the Texas Division of Emergency Management, which can complete a testing “mission” within 2-4 days of a request, TDEM spokesman Seth Christensen said.

New federal guidelines recommend weekly testing for all nursing home staff members in states that have seen COVID-19 surges, marked by 5% of coronavirus tests coming back positive — a threshold Texas has exceeded almost every day since June 1.

“I don’t have any evidence to say that currently, weekly testing of staff is being implemented,” said Alexa Schoeman, deputy state ombudsman in HHSC’s Office of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman. The state’s latest round of targeted testing in nursing homes is “better late than never,” she added; “however, I think [starting it] sooner would probably have been beneficial.”

Austin resident Cissy Sanders said her 70-year-old mother, who lives at Riverside Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Austin, tested negative for the virus April 20 and has been tested once more since then. State data shows that 69 residents and 32 employees at the facility were infected between March and July 13, and 14 residents have died from COVID-19.

In an email, Regency Integrated Health Services, the company that manages Riverside Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, acknowledged that residents and staff tested positive for the virus “in the early days of the pandemic” but declined to comment further “due to privacy laws.” A spokesperson said the facility is following all federal guidelines, screening staff and medical professionals before they enter the buildings.

Sanders said two tests for her mother in three months isn’t nearly enough. “The only way that you’re going to win this race is test, test, test,” she said.

She has turned her frustration into action, writing to several elected officials and health authorities, including the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“You know those families telling their goodbyes to their loved one over the phone while their loved one dies in a hospital bed? I refuse to do that. I refuse,” she said. “I will not stand by and watch my mother contract the virus and die because of public health and elected officials’ incompetence.”

Genny Lutzel, whose mother is a nursing home resident in Dallas County, is adamant that testing at nursing homes and similar facilities needs to be more regular.

“I know my mom has been tested once, but that’s it. We need rapid testing and we need it now,” she said. The ability to reopen nursing homes — which have been closed to visitors since mid-March — depends on it, Lutzel said.

The state has been slow to put coronavirus protections in place at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, said Tina Tran, the state director of the AARP. She says the AARP has heard from families that still are not able to get information in a timely manner about active cases in Texas facilities.

Last week, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services committed to sending testing devices to nursing homes. The agency has allocated 57 of those devices so far to Texas facilities that have reported at least three confirmed COVID-19 cases, one case among their staff or one death in the previous week.

But with more than 1,200 nursing homes and 2,000 assisted-living facilities in Texas, 57 devices are “not nearly enough,” Tran said.

Kevin Warren, president and CEO of the Texas Health Care Association, which represents providers, said he hopes that the combination of testing by the state and the devices from the federal government “will close that gap on the need for quick and rapid results.”

“We have to have some form of consistent and ongoing testing process for both staff and residents,” he said, adding that his organization has asked the state to provide money to nursing homes to buy more protective equipment, hire more staff and alleviate the financial burden of the pandemic.

In a survey by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, 64% of the surveyed providers said it was taking at least two to four days to get test results, and of those, 24% said it took five days or more.

“It is becoming a major concern for providers,” the groups said in a press release.

Warren said nursing homes “are doing everything they know to do to fight a virus we don’t see.”

Misinformation on the virus is proving highly contagious

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — As the world races to find a vaccine and a treatment for COVID-19, there is seemingly no antidote in sight for the burgeoning outbreak of coronavirus conspiracy theories, hoaxes, anti-mask myths and sham cures.

The phenomenon, unfolding largely on social media, escalated this week when President Donald Trump retweeted a false video about an anti-malaria drug being a cure for the virus and it was revealed that Russian intelligence is spreading disinformation about the crisis through English-language websites.

Experts worry the torrent of bad information is dangerously undermining efforts to slow the virus, whose death toll in the U.S. hit 150,000 Wednesday, by far the highest in the world, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. Over a half-million people have died in the rest of the world.

Hard-hit Florida reported 216 deaths, breaking the single-day record it set a day earlier. And South Carolina’s death toll passed 1,500 this week, more than doubling over the past month. In Georgia, hospitalizations have more than doubled since July 1, with 3,188 people hospitalized Wednesday.

“It is a real challenge in terms of trying to get the message to the public about what they can really do to protect themselves and what the facts are behind the problem, said Michael Osterholm, head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

He said the fear is that “people are putting themselves in harm’s way because they don’t believe the virus is something they have to deal with.”

Rather than fade away in the face of new evidence, the claims have flourished, fed by mixed messages from officials, transmitted by social media, amplified by leaders like Trump and mutating when confronted with contradictory facts.

“You don’t need masks. There is a cure,” Dr. Stella Immanuel promised in a video that promoted hydroxychloroquine. “You don’t need people to be locked down.”

The truth: Federal regulators last month revoked their authorization of the drug as an emergency treatment amid growing evidence it doesn’t work and can have deadly side effects. Even if it were effective, it wouldn’t negate the need for masks and other measures to contain the outbreak.

None of that stopped Trump, who has repeatedly praised the drug, from retweeting the video. Twitter and Facebook began removing the video Monday for violating policies on COVID-19 misinformation, but it had already been seen more than 20 million times.

Many of the claims in Immanuel’s video are widely disputed by medical experts. She has made even more bizarre pronouncements in the past, saying that cysts, fibroids and some other conditions can be caused by having sex with demons, that McDonald’s and Pokemon promote witchcraft, that alien DNA is used in medical treatments, and that half-human “reptilians” work in the government.

Other baseless theories and hoaxes have alleged that the virus isn’t real or that it’s a bioweapon created by the U.S. or its adversaries. One hoax from the outbreak’s early months claimed new 5G towers were spreading the virus through microwaves. Another popular story held that Microsoft founder Bill Gates plans to use COVID-19 vaccines to implant microchips in all 7 billion people on the planet.

Then there are the political theories — that doctors, journalists and federal officials are conspiring to lie about the threat of the virus to hurt Trump politically.

Social media has amplified the claims and helped believers find each other. The flood of misinformation has posed a challenge for Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, which have found themselves accused of censorship for taking down virus misinformation.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was questioned about Immanuel’s video during an often-contentious congressional hearing Wednesday.

“We did take it down because it violates our policies,” Zuckerberg said.

U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat leading the hearing, responded by noting that 20 million people saw the video before Facebook acted.

“Doesn’t that suggest that your platform is so big, that even with the right policies in place, you can’t contain deadly content?” Cicilline asked Zuckerberg.

It wasn’t the first video containing misinformation about the virus, and experts say it likely won’t be the last.

A professionally made 26-minute video that alleges the government’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, manufactured the virus and shipped it to China was watched more than 8 million times before the platforms took action. The video, titled “Plandemic,” also warned that masks could make you sick — the false claim Facebook cited when it removed the video down from its site.

Judy Mikovits, the discredited doctor behind “Plandemic,” had been set to appear on the show “America This Week” on the Sinclair Broadcast Group. But the company, which operates TV stations in 81 U.S. markets, canned the segment, saying it was “not appropriate” to air.

This week, U.S. government officials speaking on condition of anonymity cited what they said was a clear link between Russian intelligence and websites with stories designed to spread disinformation on the coronavirus in the West. Russian officials rejected the accusations.

Of all the bizarre and myriad claims about the virus, those regarding masks are proving to be among the most stubborn.

New York City resident Carlos Lopez said he wears a mask when required to do so but doesn’t believe it is necessary. “They’re politicizing it as a tool,” he said. “I think it’s more to try to get Trump to lose. It’s more a scare tactic.”

He is in the minority. A recent AP/NORC poll said 3 in 4 Americans — Democrats and Republicans alike — support a national mask mandate.

Still, mask skeptics are a vocal minority and have come together to create social media pages where many false claims about mask safety are shared. Facebook has removed some of the pages — such as the group Unmasking America!, which had nearly 10,000 members — but others remain.

Early in the pandemic, medical authorities themselves were the source of much confusion regarding masks. In February, officials like the U.S. surgeon general urged Americans not to stockpile masks because they were needed by medical personnel and might not be effective in everyday situations.

Public health officials changed their tune when it became apparent that the virus could spread among people showing no symptoms.

Yet Trump remained reluctant to use a mask, mocked his rival Joe Biden for wearing one and suggested people might be covering their faces just to hurt him politically. He did an abrupt about-face this month, claiming that he had always supported masks — then later retweeted Immanuel’s video against masks.

The mixed signals hurt, Fauci acknowledged in an interview with NPR this month.

“The message early on became confusing,” he said.

Many of the claims around masks allege harmful effects, such as blocked oxygen flow or even a greater chance of infection. The claims have been widely debunked by doctors.

Dr. Maitiu O Tuathail of Ireland grew so concerned about mask misinformation he posted an online video of himself comfortably wearing a mask while measuring his oxygen levels. The video has been viewed more than 20 million times.

“While face masks don’t lower your oxygen levels. COVID definitely does,” he warned.

Yet trusted medical authorities are often being dismissed by those who say requiring people to wear masks is a step toward authoritarianism.

“Unless you make a stand, you will be wearing a mask for the rest of your life,” tweeted Simon Dolan, a British businessman who has sued the government over its COVID-19 restrictions.

Trump’s reluctant, ambivalent and late embrace of masks hasn’t convinced some of his strongest supporters, who have concocted ever more elaborate theories to explain his change of heart. Some say he was actually speaking in code and doesn’t really support masks.

O Tuathail witnessed just how unshakable COVID-19 misinformation can be when, after broadcasting his video, he received emails from people who said he cheated or didn’t wear the mask long enough to feel the negative effects.

That’s not surprising, according to University of Central Florida psychology professor Chrysalis Wright, who studies misinformation. She said conspiracy theory believers often engage in mental gymnastics to make their beliefs conform with reality.

“People only want to hear what they already think they know,” she said.

Disposable masks raise same concern as other disposables: litter

A disposable mask may just keep the coronavirus from marching its way through more Waco residents, but once that mask has done its duty, it can pose the same threat other poorly handled disposable items pose.

Waco’s mix of litter seems to have some newly prominent parts, with the wider use of masks, in addition to gloves and disinfecting wipes.

“Unfortunately, I have heard some reports the amount of litter and trash associated with masks, gloves and wipes has increased,” Waco Recycling Services Program Coordinator Anna Dunbar said by email.

The solution to controlling litter associated with items intended to combat COVID-19 stacks up about the same as the solution to controlling litter in general.

“Please dispose of your masks, gloves, and wipes properly,” Dunbar said. “No one should be leaving used plastic gloves or masks on the ground in parking lots or tossing them into the bushes.”

COVID-19-related litter has attracted the attention of Keep Waco Beautiful Executive Director Ashley Millerd Crownover.

“Normally we would go ahead and schedule a litter cleanup, but we haven’t had one due to limits on crowd sizes of 10 or fewer,” Crownover said. “We typically have between 400 and 500 people show up for ours.”

Instead, Keep Waco Beautiful is offering to support residents stepping up individually.

“As an alternative, we encourage people to walk the block, picking up litter,” Crownover said. “We will provide the gloves, bags and hand sanitizer. We just need your time, and we will recognize your efforts with blog posts.”

Crownover said she’s noticed little virus-related personal protection equipment loitering in her Bosqueville neighborhood.

“Most people there have reusable masks,” she said. “But I do notice it anytime I go to the grocery store or to the post office.”

Kyle Citrano, manager partner of George’s Restaurant Bar and Catering on Hewitt Drive, and president of the Waco Restaurant Association, said he has retrieved a stray mask or two from his parking lot, and he disposes of them as he would any other trash.

He said he has not noticed a groundswell of rebellious unmasking among his clientele on their way out the door, saying cost is a factor.

“At the end of the day, masks and gloves are like gold right now. … People using a mask and then just tossing it away, I don’t really see much of that,” Citrano said. “More and more people are using reusable masks. I use a disposable mask at the restaurant, clean it and get several days’ use out of it. I have my own routine, and think most people do as well.”

He said several George’s staffers use their masks to make fashion statements, “which I don’t really have a problem with.”

Dunbar, with the city of Waco, said residents should place used disposable masks, wipes and gloves in their regular household trash, which should be securely bagged and placed in trash carts at the curb.

“Other than that, no special handling is required by the individual consumer nor by our collection, disposal or landfill crews,” Dunbar said.

While masks may become just one more item headed to the landfill, Dunbar said her department is receiving more inquiries about the disposal of bulky waste and brush. She said the city now has a new “Waco Curbside Services App” designed to keep the public informed of options.

Group W Bench Litter Patrol founder Bruce Huff said he’s following trends worldwide related to the COVID-19 pandemic and its environmental impact.

“We have members from 42 countries watching what we’re doing here in Waco, with interest, I might add,” Huff said. “I saw a post from someone in the (United Kingdom) who said he’d collected probably 50 pieces of personal protection equipment in just one morning. It’s a global situation.”

Huff said the nonprofit does its best to discourage such littering, and it coordinates with McLennan County to make picking up trash an option for people with court-ordered community service time. That has been on hold recently because of limits on gathering.

“Everyone involved is anxious to get back at it,” Huff said.

The Guardian reported last month that the wide production of disposable masks and other equipment has raised concerns about where they ultimately end up.

“Conservationists have warned that the coronavirus pandemic could spark a surge in ocean pollution — adding to a glut of plastic waste that already threatens marine life — after finding disposable masks floating like jellyfish and waterlogged latex gloves scattered across seabeds” beneath the waves of the Mediterranean,” the article states.

The Guardian reported France alone has ordered 2 billion disposable masks.