Amid concerns about hospital capacity, Bell County issues face mask order

Published: Jun. 24, 2020 at 2:03 PM CDT
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BELL COUNTY, Texas (KWTX)—Bell County Judge David Blackburn issued orders Wednesday that direct all businesses to require the use of face coverings by employees, customers, contractors and vendors on premises where physical distancing isn’t possible and “strongly encourage” residents wear face coverings in public places “where it is difficult to maintain social distancing.”

Any law enforcement agency can enforce the business directive, which goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Monday and remains in effect at least through July 13.

Violations may be reported by calling (254) 933-5203.

Violators may be fined as much as $1,000.

The directives, similar to those issued by the cites of Waco, Hewitt and Woodway, “are intended to help stem the trend lines we are now seeing in the number of new cases in Bell County and to help us maintain our hospital capacity,” he said.

“I do not issue this directive lightly. But, with the numbers we are seeing, the trends that we are seeing, I issue this directive in the hopes that it will help stave off additional directives, or orders from the governor that will be much more intrusive,” he said.

At the start of the day Wednesday, Bell County reported a total of 819 confirmed cases with 11 deaths. The county does not include Fort Hood numbers in its total.

The the state’s count for Bell County, which includes Fort Hood personnel who live on post, stood at 875.

Almost 350 patients have recovered.

Seventy nine percent of the 1,027 staffed hospital beds in the state Trauma Service region that includes Bell, Coryell, Hamilton, Lampasas, Milam and Mills counties are occupied and as of Tuesday afternoon, only 13 intensive care beds were available, he said.

“I have been advised by the largest private health care provider in the county that they now have, in the hospital the largest number of COVID patients that they have had since the pandemic began,” he said.

“I also asked that institution if there were concerns about hospital capacity and their ability to continue to operate ‘business as usual’. The answer was … ‘yes… they do have concerns about hospital capacity at this point in time,’” he said.

“This is also concerning to me.”

The directives recommend against the use of medical masks of N-95 respirators and exempt the use of face coverings while exercising or engaging in other physical activity outside; while driving alone or with passengers from the same household as the driver; while pumping gas or operating outdoor equipment; while in a building such as a bank or engaged in an activity that requires surveillance; while eating or drinking or “when doing so poses a greater mental or physical health, safety or security risk.”

“I don’t think any of us, me included, want to see us going back to a point where businesses are closed again,” Blackburn said.

“By implementing this measure, at the local level, I think it provides us with the best opportunity to balance the re-opening of our economy and flow of commerce with the health concerns associated with the COVID19 pandemic.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told reporters Wednesday new local restrictions may be required to ensure hospital space for new COVID-19 patients, which he acknowledged state officials are watching closely as the case count continues to climb.

He didn’t detail what those restrictions might entail.

Texas Medical Association Dr. Diana L. Fite, meanwhile, said Wednesday the association is in close contact with the governor’s office.

“In many parts of our state, COVID-19 is making a terrifyingly strong return,” she said.

“Hospitals are activating surge plans to make room for more seriously ill patients – whether with COVID-19, other diseases, or significant trauma.

“If we – and that includes physicians, hospital administrators, and other health care leaders – don’t handle this correctly, the consequences will be severe for us, our patients, and large swaths of the Texas health care system.”

She says doctors, nurses and other health care workers must be protected from infection; doctors must work closely with hospitals to schedule admissions and procedures for patients who most need them; use ambulatory surgical centers and other outpatient facilities when appropriate.

And, she said, doctors must share a simple message often: “Wash your hands often. Stay home if you can. Practice social distancing. And for your sake, for your neighbors’ sake, for my sake, and for your grandma’s sake, wear a mask, Texas.”

Copyright 2020 KWTX. All rights reserved.

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