AUSTIN (Nexstar) – As more Texans head back to work, the state still faces concern about fast-spreading cases of COVID-19. One strategy to control the spread is to send “surge response teams” to areas where cases start to spike.
Health, military and emergency management personnel are spread out across Texas to tackle COVID-19 clusters this weekend, the state’s emergency management chief said.
Those teams are located in 60 communities around Texas to help with testing, medical supply delivery and sanitation, approximately five times the number of teams in the initial dispatch six weeks ago.
“We know right now that nursing homes, meatpacking plants and jails and prisons are the top three areas where we see outbreaks occur,” Chief Nim Kidd of the Texas Division of Emergency Management said. “What we’re trying to do — and doing with success — is getting into those locations, testing everybody in the facility. Trying to get a very rapid turnaround on those tests, which isn’t always as fast as I want it to be, and making sure that we take people that are positive and keep them together, and people that are negative and keep them together.”
Kidd uses a wildfire analogy to explain how the state approaches a community where there’s been an outbreak.
“We’ve evacuated the area, now we’re letting people back in, we know that we’re going to have hotspots, and we have these surge teams created to go and address those hotspots,” Kidd said.
“We are currently helping with the disinfecting of all of our nursing homes, trying to do our best to help everyone out,” Sergeant Diana Byrd, battle noncommissioned officer with the Army National Guard Joint Task Force 176, said in a video released by the Texas Military Department.
Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday the surge response teams are helping contain the spread of the novel coronavirus in Texas.
“Every time we have pushed these surge teams into hot zones, they’ve met with very good results,” Abbott said. “But what happens is over the first week you will see a massive increase in the amount of tests as well as the amount of the people who test positive, and then after about two weeks, you see a decline in both tests and those testing positive and you see a containment of the problem.”
“What we do anticipate is as we continue to open up the state for doing business, there will be some other hotspots that arise,” Abbott explained. “But because we have the system perfected the way that we do, I think that we will be able to contain hot spots in Texas as we move forward.”
Kidd said the state is leaning on local fire and EMS departments to help meet the Governor’s mandate of testing all of the state’s nursing homes and providing additional testing for workers at meat processing facilities where outbreaks have taken over.
“By training together and working together and assisting them and finding the swabs and the PPE (personal protective equipment), those local fire assets are actually out in the field today, helping us with testing of nursing homes, and we want to continue that process with them,” Kidd said. “It keeps everything local, but it leaves us having to not send as many state agency responders in to help because our local government partners there have the resources to do the job.”
“We want to continue our surge teams because we know there is a portion of the population that is positive, but asymptomatic testing is the only way to do that,” Kidd said.
Hydroxychloroquine divides Texas doctors
The anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine has once again been brought to the forefront of discussions surrounding treatment for COVID-19, after President Trump on Monday admitted to using the drug as a preventative measure— despite a lack of evidence proving the efficacy of the drug in preventing or treating the virus.
KXAN reached out to the Texas Medical Association and Texas Medical Board about its coronavirus treatment recommendations to doctors and heard from one of the Austin-based doctors who says she plans to continue treating COVID-19 patients using the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine in combination with other supplements.
While the Food and Drug Administration has approved an emergency use authorization for the drug to be made available, it has not approved it for prevention or treatment of COVID-19 outside of a hospital or clinical trial.
Dr. Ann Shippy, who has practiced functional medicine for the past 15 years, says she has treated 10 patients and herself for COVID-19 using the drug without any negative impacts. She said she checks in with them daily and has seen improvement in the days following use of hydroxychloroquine.
“I’m keeping my patients from getting sick enough to have to go into the hospital,” Shippy said. “The more that we can be doing to keep people from getting to the point that they have to be hospitalized, and it’s a very inexpensive treatment with what I think is very low risk.”
Shippy says she wouldn’t feel comfortable prescribing hydroxychloroquine if her patients weren’t having positive responses.
The Texas Medical Association, of which Shippy is a member physician, does not recommend the use of hydroxychloroquine in preventing or treating COVID-19.
KXAN asked Shippy for her response to that guidance, and she said, “I don’t really have a response to that. I think it’s easier for me to feel comfortable with it because I’ve seen it work.”
According to data firm Premier, orders for hydroxychloroquine jumped 260% in the first two weeks of March, compared to earlier in the year. The drug is commonly used to treat malaria and autoimmune diseases.
Dr. John Carlo, an epidemiologist and member of the TMA COVID-19 Task Force, said he worries about potentially serious side effects associated with hydroxychloroquine.
“We all want something to work,” Carlo said. “There is a massive effort going on to look for medications that do have potential benefits. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is going to be one.”
Several ongoing studies are researching the efficacy of using hydroxychloroquine in preventing COVID-19 infection with frontline health care workers. So far, no studies have provided definitive evidence that hydroxychloroquine reduces a patient’s chance of being infected with COVID-19 or reduces the severity of the virus.
A joint statement released in April by the American Medical Association, American Pharmacists Association, and American Society of Health-System Pharmacists cautioned the use of non-FDA approved medications in treating COVID-19.
“Definitive evidence for the role of these drugs in treating COVID-19 patients has not been determined through robust clinical trials; decisions to use these medications off-label must be made with extreme caution and careful monitoring,” the statement reads.
The Texas Medical Board does not issue guidance regarding specific drugs or treatments for COVID-19, according to an agency spokesperson. TMB would only review a case following a patient complaint.
Woman’s murder leads to suspect’s 20-year state hospital stay
Clara Oda Torriente-Capote, a 36-year-old mother, was caught by surprise on the afternoon of Sept. 18, 1999, when a stranger plucked the sunglasses off her head as she walked out of a South Austin gas station.
Shocked, standing in the bustling parking lot at East Oltorf Street and Interstate-35, she swung her plastic bag with a can of Coke at the man’s face. Torriente-Capote did not know 30-year-old James McMeans was homeless and schizophrenic. After she struck him, McMeans pulled out a large knife and dragged Torriente-Capote across the parking lot, according to an incident report.
McMeans slashed Torriente-Capote once across the back of the neck, and she died at the scene. Police caught and arrested McMeans within an hour, and a grand jury indicted him for murder nine days later, according to police and court records.
But rather than face trial, McMeans has been in competency restoration for 20 years. He is mentally ill and unable to understand or aid in his own defense; therefore, he can’t stand trial, according to state hospital experts and the courts.
Senior District Judge Jon Wisser presided over the McMeans case in 1999. Wisser, who has since retired, called McMeans’ two decades in a state hospital pretrial as “very unusual.”
“He’s been there longer than anyone,” Wisser said. “I’m not sure that anyone that I sent there are there anymore.”
The McMeans case, though an outlier in terms of its time span, highlights Texas’ struggle to handle mental health cases and open bed space in a backlogged state hospital system. The system is currently full, and mentally ill people charged with crimes typically wait months for a space to open.
As McMeans’ case drags on, those who were close to Torriente-Capote, like Nina Jordan, are left without justice.
Jordan adopted and raised Torriente-Capote’s special-needs child as her own. The boy, now a young man, still lives with Jordan after more than two decades.
“Everybody deserves a closure in some form or another,” said Jordan. “It’s kind of hard to find any kind of closure when the guy’s in limbo.”
From her cramped East Austin apartment, Jordan explained to KXAN how she came to be the mother of Torriente-Capote’s baby.
In 1998, Jordan was an educator and worked in the off season at a gas station grill. One day, Torriente-Capote walked in furious. Torriente-Capote was homeless at the time and had her four-year-old daughter in tow. Jordan soon learned Torriente-Capote was pregnant.
“I told her I would help her. I got her into detox, got her cleaned up, got her fed. She got plenty of sleep. She stayed at my house,” Jordan said. “She knew the baby was going to be handicapped in some form.”
Torriente-Capote seemed to finally be overcoming her own struggles with addiction before she was murdered.
Few could have expected the case to go unresolved for decades.
Once a year, McMeans’ case is reevaluated. He has consistently been found incompetent and ordered to remain in the state hospital.
Wisser said cases involving an insanity defense do not often go to trial. Typically, prosecutors and the defense would come to an agreement on a plea, he said. A person, if they remain a danger to themselves or others, would remain in in-patient care at a state hospital. If the person was no longer insane, or not dangerous, they could be released for out-patient care, he said.
Keith Hampton, McMeans’ attorney, said the state hospital system will likely be the final stop for McMeans.
“That’s where he stays. That’s his prison, really. If he even knows that he’s in a prison,” Hampton said.
McMeans is currently in a non-maximum-security state hospital in Kerrville.
“The closure for James, with McMeans, is you’re in a murder trial. And it would be a trial because he has a solid defense. So, you know, if he fails in his defense, he goes to prison. If he prevails on his defense, he goes to the state hospital,” Hampton said. “There’s no freedom for him. There’s no straight-up acquittal.”
As long as McMeans remains in the state hospital, he occupies a bed that could be used for other defendants that are currently waiting in county jails for months.
Defendants who are found mentally incompetent are supposed to be transferred to a state hospital immediately for treatment, but that is not happening.
Wait times for people needing a state hospital bed have grown to record levels, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees the hospital system.
The state divides its wait list into two categories, maximum security for dangerous individuals and non-maximum security for the rest. The average wait time for a maximum-security bed in January was 284 days; the average wait time for a non-maximum-security bed was 66 days at that time, according to the latest available state data available.
Jordan said she has moved on from blaming McMeans for the killing. She believes he was insane and unable to understand his actions or control himself. The case “stinks,” she said, and there “will be no solution ever.”
However, if the state can improve its system because of Torriente-Capote’s case, that would be a consolation.
“I don’t want to forget Clara,” Jordan said. “She had a purpose, and I want to believe that maybe somehow that what’s happening with this gentleman, at her expense, maybe because of her there is a solution that can be found.”
COVID-19 highlights need for child advocates in Texas
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, counties around Texas are seeing a greater need for volunteers and advocates to help children entering the child welfare system.
Last week, KXAN reported a dramatic decrease in reports of child abuse and neglect, leaving the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) concerned. They said the drop in calls might actually indicate an increase in abuse, as the switch to online learning makes it harder for people to notice troubling signs in children’s lives at home.
However, new numbers from DFPS show no significant decrease in the number of children removed from homes, due to abuse or neglect, during the pandemic. This means, as DFPS continues to investigate cases, there is still a flood of children entering the foster care system each month.
- November 2019: 1,215 children
- December 2019: 1,176 children
- January 2020: 1,421 children
- February 2020: 1,288 children
- March 2020: 1,401 children
- Apr 2020: 1,257 children
When a child is removed from a possibly dangerous situation in their home, a judge may appoint a Court Appointed Special Advocate to look out for the best interest of the child, in court and other settings. But as child removals remain steady, the number of volunteers is down in some parts of the state.
CASA for the Highland Lakes, serving Blanco, Burnet, Lampasas, Llano and San Saba Counties, sent out a plea to the community for more volunteers.
“The COVID-19 crisis is affecting us all,” Executive Director Conrad Arriola said. “Like the rest of us, children in foster care are facing things like increased stress, physical and mental health risks, reduced access to goods and services and social isolation. They need someone on their side, who can help them feel safe and connected, now more than ever.”
In its area, CASA for the Highland Lakes reported 260 children in foster care, including 45 kids who were removed from their homes since the beginning of COVID-19 mandated emergency orders in March. Right now, it reported 68 assigned CASAs in its area.
Arriola said which several community members have stepped up to help during the pandemic, 38 kids still need an advocate.
“I just think it’s really accelerated: the isolation, the abuse,” he said.
He told KXAN their advocates have had to get creative, since they cannot visit kids at their new placements in person.
“Through Zoom, through Face Time. We’ve had advocates leave a pizza on the porch,” he explained.
CASA of Travis County said they’ve moved their operations entirely online, as well.
“We are advocating for children’s best interest over Zoom, sometimes, with the judges, or sometimes by email,” CEO Laura Wolf said. “The whole system is continuing to do the work to take care of these kids and support their families, but it definitely looks a lot different than it did four months ago.”
Wolf said they have been thankful for many new volunteers during the health crisis, as well, but they are bracing for an increase in cases as things begin to reopen.
“Once kids are back, more visible in the community — now that child care centers can open and kids can go to summer school, since schools can open now — we do expect to see, probably, an influx of reports and likely an increase in the number of kids coming into the system,” she said.
Right now, CASA of Travis County is currently serving 1,082 kids, with 494 active volunteer advocates. They reported 599 kids in the system who still need a volunteer advocate.
Wolf explained that child removals may have remained steady because very serious cases are still being investigated by the state.
“Those are the cases that are getting to the hospital and getting to law enforcement,” she said.
Many cases they see, however, don’t escalate to the level of abuse, but involve drug use in the home or neglect. Wolf said, no matter the reason, they need CASA volunteers who are willing to fight for the best outcome for the child.
“What are the supports that parents need — that families need — in order to provide a safe and appropriate home for their children? If it can be safe, our first goal is to be able to reunify children with their parents,” she said.
Arriola said they understand if people can’t donate their time as an advocate, but they encourage the community to give back to kids in the system in other ways.
“Besides being a volunteer, gift cards are the best thing,” he said, adding that they give them to kids for birthdays or special occasions. “Also, technology, tablets — making sure kids have the infrastructure they need.”
They offer a program called Friends of CASA, where community members can do community outreach, office support, or fundraising. To find out more, click here. To volunteer as a CASA in the Highland Lakes Area, click here.
To volunteer in Travis County, click here.
For more information on CASA across Texas, click here.