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Three more COVID-19 deaths, 103 new cases reported in McLennan County

Officials reported three more deaths of McLennan County residents attributed to COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the local total to 35.

All three whose deaths were announced Friday — a 55-year-old man, a 70-year-old woman and an 84-year-old woman — were in local hospitals when they died, Waco-McLennan County Public Health District spokesperson Kelly Craine said. Thirteen local deaths have been confirmed in the first six days of this week and 31 of the county’s deaths have come since mid-June.

The health district also reported 103 new cases Friday, including four in children younger than 1 year old. While the likely severity of COVID-19 generally increases with age, infants are particularly susceptible to serious illness from the coronavirus, Waco Family Health Center CEO Dr. Jackson Griggs said during a press conference Wednesday.

A total of 3,885 residents of the county have tested positive, including an estimated 1,805 who have active infections and an estimated 2,045 who have recovered, based on the time that has passed since their test sample was collected.

“We are not at the level where we were seeing over 200 cases per day, but we really are seeing on average about 100 cases per day,” Craine said. “We still are at high numbers for cases, but if you look at the hospitalization rate, that number hasn’t changed, so we are really not flattening any curve. We are really seeing a continued widespread virus.”

The health district reported local hospitals were treating 77 COVID-19 patients as of Friday, including 62 who are McLennan County residents and 11 who are on ventilators. Officials have said the local hospitals have the space and equipment to treat patients but that the situation is straining personnel.

So far, the day with the highest number of cases reported in McLennan County was July 3, with 271 cases. At that time, nine people had died of the disease.

Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver issued a mandatory mask order June 19, requiring the use of masks by employees and customers in local business, and Gov. Greg Abbott followed with a statewide mask order early this month requiring the use of masks in public places.

“That mask order applies to more than just going to the grocery store or going into a store or business,” Craine said. “It is about wearing it at your work that may not be in a public place or in an office building. But any time you step out of the house, you need to wear a mask.”

Craine said the demographics highlight that everyone can be affected by COVID-19.

“If you look at the age groups, we are seeing all age groups affected by this, and today there were more cases affecting children under the age of 1, so this is affecting every part of our community,” she said. “We are not locked down, and we have to take these steps seriously to really slow the spread significantly.”

The age groupings for cases reported Friday:

  • 4 younger than age 1
  • 1 age 1-10
  • 14 age 11-19
  • 22 age 20-29
  • 27 age 30-39
  • 10 age 40-49
  • 9 age 50-59
  • 6 age 60-64
  • 2 age 65-69
  • 1 age 70-74
  • 3 age 75-79
  • 4 age 80 or older.

Free walk-up COVID-19 testing, with no registration required, will run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Wednesday at the Waco Multipurpose Facility, 1020 Elm Ave., and at University Baptist Church, 1701 Dutton Ave. Walk-up testing also will run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 13 to Aug. 15 at the McLennan Community College Highlander Gym, 1710 Powell Drive.

Free drive-thru testing will take place from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday at Toliver Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, 1402 Elm Ave., and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 3 at McGregor High School, 903 Bluebonnet Parkway. Registration for the drive-thru testing is required at

Stem spent 44 years building up Waco before retirement as city manager

Wiley Stem III said after having a hand in nearly every major infrastructure project in Waco since the 1980s, he felt the time was right to step down at city manager.

Stem, who worked for the city of Waco for 44 years, announced his retirement during a city council meeting in May and officially stepped down this month. Over the course of his career, he helped develop the city’s street, water and wastewater improvement programs in the ’80s and ’90s and the current version of the Lake Waco Dam in 2007, led the charge to clean up the North Bosque River and helped make drastic improvements to the city’s animal shelter.

“I had hoped we’d be able to build a really strong team up there, and working with the council we’ve been able to do that,” Stem said of his former colleagues with the city. “When I saw the great team that’s up there now, it’s probably a good time for me to ease out.”

Stem literally worked his way from the ground up. He started out with a city surveying crew as a college student, returning with his degree to oversee public works and eventually becoming assistant city manager in 2000.

“I got to see all of those great things, be a part of them, and watch the people who really know how to do all of that,” Stem said.

He graduated from Baylor University with a degree in business and every intention of following that career path, but his summers on the survey crew under Director Jim Hamm, who became a good friend of his, changed his mind.

“I intended to stay long enough to find what I was really going to do, but I found what I was really going to do,” Stem said.

A quick look at some family members’ careers might have given him a hint.

His grandfather served as chief of detectives with the Waco Police Department, joining in 1918 and serving through the Great Depression. His father, Wiley Stem II, was the city attorney for years. His uncle, Alva Stem, served as the city’s parks recreation director, and Alva Stem Jr. worked as a city engineer for 25 years.

Throughout the early 1980s, Wiley Stem was under the wing of Water Superintendent Ernest White and Wastewater Superintendent Jack Carswell, though he was technically their boss at the time.

The leader of Stem’s survey crew, Charles Byrd, was a 25-year city employee and also left a lasting impression. Stem said Byrd in particular was “impossible to misunderstand” and had a direct way of communicating that he took with him to the city manager’s office.

“They taught me, and I learned to just support them and help them get their job done,” Stem said. “But they taught me a lot about the water system, a lot about the sewer system, and they taught me how to get things done in the field.”

Stem worked in the water department for 16 years before moving to the city manager’s office in 1999. Kathy Rice made him one of her assistant city managers in 2000, and he was promptly put in charge of a project to raise Lake Waco by several feet. The project had started in earnest in 1979, but the groundwork had been laid years before.

One late night when he was poring over contracts related to the Lake Waco project, he found one signed by his father in 1958, turning the city reservoir into a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir.

“So yeah, there was a connection,” Stem said with a laugh. “I called him and talked to him about it, and he gave me a lot of perspective. The project was already really important to me because I knew what it meant to Waco, but having a chance to visit with him about it made it much more personal for me.”

Stem said the early 2000s marked a transitional period for the city. Former City Manager James Holgersson left in 1996, and several people in the city manager’s office left with him. Melissa Vossmer was appointed to the position before resigning in 1998.

Stem worked closely with Mayor Linda Ethridge, who ran for office as the “water mayor” and oversaw everything from raising roads and parking lots to the environmental mitigation required once the project was complete.

He learned two things from Ethridge that stuck with him for the rest of his career: the concept of sustained vigilance and the saying that “politics is the art of letting someone else have your way.”

The Lake Waco project would secure the city’s water supply, but the city had been known for its terrible tasting water for decades, partially because of waste from upstream dairies along the North Bosque River. While the city was expanding its water treatment capacity, it was also locked in conflict with the dairies.

Former City Manager Larry Groth, who took over the role in 2003, said Stem’s talent for making connections and getting the right people at the table was key to getting the dairies to cooperate.

“It was obviously a big effort with city politicians and everybody else, but Wiley was the absolute central point,” Groth said. “He stayed on that, he made the right connection, built some great relationships. The dairy folks didn’t like him, because he was shining a light on some of what they were doing, but I think in the end they respected him.”

Stem, with his extensive public works knowledge, helped push for regulations to stop waste from flowing into the river and to the lake. After settling a federal lawsuit in 2006, it took two more years for them to come together to work as partners.

“We all got tired of fighting, but I think Mayor Ethridge, her resolve with the agricultural industry, the dairy industry and the state of Texas was part of it,” Stem said. “She would be the first to admit she wasn’t very popular with those folks, but she did what she had to do as mayor of Waco to protect our city and our water supply.”

Subsequent mayors Mae Jackson, Robin McDurham, Virginia DuPuy and Jim Bush kept up Ethridge’s motto of “sustained vigilance” on the issue, meeting with Environmental Protection Agency and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality officials with Stem to explain the city’s situation.

“Each of them stepped up on issues that, in some cases, I’ve gotten the credit for, but in every case it would not have happened if the mayor had not been in front of me clearing the path.” Stem said. “I think the parties still hold each other at arms’ length, but we have a working relationship, and there’s some trust that’s been built there. That’s good for everybody.”

Dale Fisseler retired from the city of Fort Worth in 2011 and became Waco’s city manager two years later, after decades away from his hometown. He said Stem, who knew city departments inside and out, was the obvious choice for the deputy position.

Their paths had crossed before in Austin, and Fisseler, who had worked in Fort Worth’s water department, admired Stem’s tenacity on the North Bosque River issue. They later discover their fathers had worked together in Waco in the 1950s.

“Wiley knows pretty much everybody, not just in Waco but in the whole state,” Fisseler said. “It’s really weird. I thought I knew a lot of people in Waco, but he knows people in Austin and Washington, D.C. He can always call somebody to help us get something done.”

Fisseler said city governments have to always consider the long-term, especially in issues involving utilities, and Stem had a hand in nearly every major project during his time with the city.

“He never stepped away from a big project because it was complicated or politically charged,” Fisseler said. “He was always thinking 20 or 30 years ahead.”

An issue tackled by one of the city’s more recent projects had left Waco with a measure of infamy in some circles. When Stem traveled to other city animal shelters, the reputation of Waco’s then-crowded shelter and high kill rate preceded him.

Reporting back to Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr., the two were motivated to improve the situation. Duncan said in the 1980s, when his father served on the city council and his mother served on the local Humane Society board, the then city-run animal shelter was a constant source of disappointment. The Humane Society assumed control for the next 20 years, but growth in and around the city meant that the number of strays and surrendered animals eventually overwhelmed their resources. By the early 2000s, the kill rate was between 80% and 90%.

“The whole approach to animal welfare was done as animal control, under the auspices of the police department,” Duncan said. “That was just a very unhealthy situation, and by and large all cities in the county did it that way.”

Under a new agreement with the Central Texas Humane Society, Animal Birth Control Clinic and various other county animal rescue organizations, the city assumed control of the shelter once again in late 2012, and the Humane Society assumed control of fundraising and shifted its focus to adoptions. Their efforts paid off in two years, and the city increased its investment into the shelter.

“We had never approached it as a collaborate effort before, and Wiley built partnerships with all of those different agencies,” Duncan said. “There were all these different interest groups that were not working together, and Wiley took the time to meet with all of them, understand what their goals were and how we each had a role to play.”

The shelter in recent years has maintained a “no-kill” status, and Stem said he intends to do his part to keep it running as it should, city manager title or no.

“I’ll never be too busy to be involved with that, just because I know what happens when a community disengages from that,” Stem said. “It could go back to the way it used to be, but we can’t allow that to happen.”

Stem and his wife, Tonette, got into the habit of adopting older dogs from the shelter, giving them a home in the country at their family farm in their final years. At one time, they had as many as six.

“I think in 44 years, being as experienced as he was in every different department, he had a ground-level understanding of public works municipal operations that’s going to be hard to duplicate,” Duncan said. “It’s a tremendous bank of knowledge and experience that led him to be so successful.”

Extra unemployment aid expires as virus threatens new states

LOS ANGELES — As public health officials warned Friday that the coronavirus posed new risks to parts of the Midwest and South, enhanced federal payments that helped avert financial ruin for millions of unemployed Americans were set to expire — leaving threadbare safety nets offered by individual states to catch them.

Since early in the pandemic, the federal government has added $600 to the weekly unemployment checks that states send. That increase ends this week, and with Congress still haggling over next steps, most states will not be able to offer nearly as much.

The extra federal aid helped keep Wally Wendt and his family afloat.

Wendt, 54, of Everett, Washington, was laid off from the fitness company where he worked for 31 years. The extra federal benefits helped him pay a loan to put a new roof on his house that he took out before the virus struck and the economy cratered.

The money also helps his daughter, who lost her restaurant job. With the boost, she can afford diapers, baby formula, rent and utilities. Without it, Wendt said, his daughter and her two children might move in with him.

“The politicians need to get their ducks in a row.” Wendt said. “The pressure’s not on them, it’s on all of us blue-collar workers who are struggling to make a living.”

In addition to the end of the $600 payments, federal protections against evictions also are set to expire.

Standard unemployment benefits often leave recipients with poverty-level incomes, but they are sure to continue, even as states wrestle with diminishing unemployment trust funds.

Every state offers assistance for at least some unemployed workers based on a portion of their previous earnings. The maximum amounts vary widely, from $235 a week in Mississippi to $1,234 in Massachusetts. Benefits are available for as few as six weeks in Georgia and up to 28 weeks in Montana. Most states normally cut people off after 26 weeks.

The potential loss of benefits comes at a time of increasing pessimism about job prospects. Nearly half of Americans whose families experienced a layoff during the pandemic now believe those jobs are lost forever, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Aside from the pandemic’s economic damage, the virus itself threatens to overwhelm parts of the country that have been relatively unscathed.

White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx warned in a television interview that the surge of cases in the South and Southwest could make its way north.

“What started out very much as a Southern and Western epidemic is starting to move up the East Coast, into Tennessee, Arkansas, up into Missouri, up across Colorado,” Birx told NBC’s “Today” show. She implored people to wear masks, wash hands and keep at least 6 feet apart.

In Missouri, confirmed cases have risen sharply since Republican Gov. Mike Parson allowed the state to reopen in mid-June. The number of positive tests set a record three days in a row this week.

Birx said health professionals have “called out the next set of cities” where they see early warning signs because if those cities make changes now they “won’t become a Phoenix.” Arizona’s sprawling capital has suffered a severe outbreak, though Birx said Friday the federal government was seeing encouraging declines in positive test results there and in San Antonio, which like much of Texas has been hard hit.

The governor of Vermont, where cases have been among the nation’s lowest, responded Friday by issuing an order requiring people to wear masks in public. “We are still in very good shape, but it is time to prepare,” Republican Gov. Phil Scott said. Also Friday, McDonald’s announced it would soon start requiring masks in its restaurants.

Masks continue to be a national flashpoint. Police in Green Bay, Wisconsin, were investigating death threats made against city officials over a mandate requiring face coverings in public buildings. Indiana’s governor dropped a planned criminal penalty from the statewide mandate that he signed Friday after objections from many law enforcement officials and some conservative legislators.

Sunbelt states that have been besieged in recent weeks are still struggling. Florida, for example, reported 135 new deaths and 12,000 new cases, pushing its total of identified infections past 400,000. In California, officials reported a record 159 deaths Friday, bringing total deaths to around 8,200. California now has more than 435,000 confirmed cases.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Washington were negotiating a new coronavirus relief bill as state and local governments, schools, businesses and others pushed for a new dose of aid. Congressional Democrats have sought to keep the extra $600 in unemployment checks rolling. Republicans who control the Senate have proposed benefits worth 70% of what people made before.

The $600 weekly bonus is set to expire July 31, but the cutoff is effectively Saturday owing to how states process payments.

Other aspects of the enhanced benefits will continue, including coverage for some gig workers and freelancers who are usually ineligible for unemployment, as well as a 13-week extension of regular payments that the federal government is helping to subsidize.

Critics noted that the extra cash payments meant many workers were receiving more for not working than they did working — a possible disincentive for returning to the job. Supporters cast that as an acknowledgement that wages were too low, and said the extra money was a chance for workers to build up a cushion in case they remained unemployed after benefits expire.

The federal government is offering interest-free loans to states that deplete their unemployment insurance trust funds, and 10 states have received them so far. But paying the U.S. back after a crisis can keep states from building up reserves. Pennsylvania just finished paying off its loans from the Great Recession.

Hawaii is one state that is preserving part of the boost, increasing unemployment checks by $100 a week for the rest of the year. To pay for it, the tourism-dependent state is using nearly one-fifth of its federal coronavirus aid.

Georgia is allowing people to earn more from part-time jobs while still receiving benefits. In most places, however, similar measures have not taken hold.

The New Hampshire Legislature, controlled by Democrats, approved a bill to increase the maximum payment by $100 weekly, to $527. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed it, saying that some of the details could have jeopardized federal funding.

In Arizona, Democrats have also pushed for adding $100 to the maximum weekly benefit of $240, but Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, deferred to Congress.

Waco ISD board approves Sept. 8 start date for all classes, whether online or in-person

Waco Independent School District students will start school three weeks later than normal, on Sept. 8, after the board of trustees voted 6-1 on Thursday night to delay the start, including for online instruction, in the midst of a surge in local COVID-19 cases.

Board Secretary Norman Manning cast the sole dissenting vote, after he raised concerns earlier in the meeting about bringing students back into schools right after the Labor Day weekend. He said McLennan County has seen more people test positive for COVID-19 after three-day weekends and that start date “weighs very heavily upon my heart.”

Superintendent Susan Kincannon assured the school board the district’s reopening plan and altered school calendar comply with the Waco-McLennan County health authority’s order Tuesday instructing all K-12 schools to postpone in-person, on-campus instruction and activities until after Sept. 7.

“Because we heard from our families and our teachers that the transitions were hard that we had in the spring, moving from one platform to the next, we think that beginning remote instruction and in-person instruction at the same time after Labor Day provides the greatest consistency for families and the smoothest start overall,” Kincannon said, adding that the situation is fluid and the district needs to remain flexible.

If more people continue to get COVID-19, Waco ISD may have to start instruction remotely for all students and revisit its plans, Kincannon said. The new first day of school is about six weeks away.

Both in-person and remote instruction will start Sept. 8, depending on which model students choose. Students must commit to either in-person or remote instruction for a full grading period, or six weeks, under state guidelines.

About a third of Waco ISD families do not know whether they want to send their students back to school in September, according to a poll taken during a telephone town hall meeting Kincannon led Tuesday night to get feedback and answer questions on the approaching school year. About 1,400 people participated in the town hall, in both English and Spanish. Almost 45% of participants said they would choose remote instruction, while 23.2% selected in-person and 32.2% chose unknown.

Kincannon said families are concerned about their children’s safety and have questions regarding logistical details, such as how meals will be served and how students will be transported to and from school. They also have questions about specific programs, including special education, gifted and talented, and athletics.

Waco ISD families can start registering their students online Monday for either remote or in-person instruction. The district plans to match students who want to learn remotely with teachers who want to teach remotely. Kincannon said families can change their minds about whether they want to do in-person or remote instruction up to two weeks before the first day of school.

The district chose to use an asynchronous instruction model because it allows for more flexibility on how and when students are learning, as opposed to synchronous instruction, Kincannon said. Asynchronous instruction allows teachers to assign students activities they can do at their own speeds, while synchronous instruction involves live, interactive lessons between teachers and students. The asynchronous model will give families time to work with their students in the evenings, as well.

Waco ISD must submit its plan on how it will deliver and track remote instruction, among other requirements, to the state by Oct. 1.

The new 2020-21 school calendar also adds 15 minutes to each school day to give the district a buffer of time to meet the state required minutes of instruction, in case Waco ISD must close a school or the district because of a COVID-19 outbreak. Elementary school students will start at 7:45 a.m. and get out at 3:30 p.m., and middle and high school students will start at 8:30 a.m. and get out at 4:15 p.m.

Transformation Waco plans to follow the district’s calendar and choice of asynchronous remote instruction to provide some consistency for families, CEO Robin McDurham said. The in-district charter system that operates five Waco ISD schools has more than 300 students with siblings who attend schools outside the Transformation zone.

Lady Bear seniors Kalani Brown (21) and Chloe Jackson (24) celebrate as time expires and Baylor defeats Notre Dame, 82-81. Jackson scored 26 points, including the game-winning shot, and was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player. Brown pumped in 20 points and grabbed 13 rebounds.

Kincannon heads to her seat at the WISD school board meeting.