Dispelling the myths around COVID-19 and Gray County

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As Pampa, Gray County and the world move further into the global pandemic of COVID-19, more and more conspiracy theories and myths have emerged locally, regionally and nationally.

The Pampa News had the opportunity to speak with Gray County Judge Chris Porter to talk about COVID-19 and how it’s affected Gray County.

CARES Act and Gray County funding

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law by United States President Donald Trump. As a part of the act, businesses, states and municipalities are eligible for funding from the federal government for COVID-19-related costs. 

One of the conspiracies surrounding this funding, mainly in Amarillo, is that municipalities and government entities want to increase their numbers of COVID-19 cases to receive more money from the government to build non-COVID-19-related projects such as ballparks, water parks, infrastructure, etc.

Porter said the funding is not based on number of positive cases, but more on the size of the population for the county or municipality.

“The CARES Act has basically enabled money based off of population,” Porter said. “That’s where our funding is coming from. The City of Pampa, City of Lefors and City of McLean all have their funding to apply for through the CARES grant. The County also has all of the people who don’t live within any of those city limits. Those people are also under what the County receives.”

The federal government has guaranteed Gray County 20 percent of what they are eligible for (whether the County applies for it or not), which is ear-marked specifically for COVID-19-related items.

“But if we don’t use the allocation, it has to be returned,” Porter said. “That money is for any COVID-19-related expense. If we are going to be putting sneeze guards into the County Clerk’s office or the Tax Assessor’s Office, that money is supposed to be reimbursed back to the County for that COVID-19-related expense. So the population is what ties that money in and is based on how many people you have to service as a county or municipality.”

That being said, the larger entities will receive more funding because they have larger population bases, not necessarily more cases.

Beyond the 20 percent guaranteed to the municipalities, the other 80 percent has to be re-applied for if spent on a COVID-19-related material.

“They don’t want to have 80 percent of their money go toward something not related to COVID-19 and wait for a County or municipality to pay it back,” Porter said.

The funding for COVID-19-related expenses does still cover a wide range of items including compensation time for deputies/dispatchers, courthouse safety, employee safety and anything the County has had to “extraordinarily had to spend” to make sure COVID-19 is not affecting employees and citizens in County facilities.

By the numbers

As more numbers are reported every day, Porter said there is no one statistic more important than the other.

“I am as equally concerned about every number we report,” Porter said. “The death is a tough number. I would be lying if I said that didn’t affect me that we had a COVID-19-related death in the County. That’s part of the pressure of this job, you don’t know this person personally, but you still feel like something could have been done there.”

Porter said the one of the goals of the numbers is to control hot-spots. Recoveries are important because it allows people to come out of quarantine and go back to work. 

But the No. 1 goal for Porter and everyone on the COVID-19 committee for Pampa/Gray County is to not deplete and overwhelm the medical resources.

“There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there that we are trying to control the citizenry,” Porter said. “For everything I’ve seen so far, the bottom line has been to protect our health resources because our health resources were not prepared for a pandemic like this. 

“I think these proactive measures we took were in an effort to protect everybody for the longevity of this virus. There’s no telling how long it’s going to last. It may disappear like H1N1 did and not show up again or it might be something like the flu where we deal with it for the rest of our lives.”

The extreme usage of PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) and respirators is and continues to threaten hospitals across the area, and Porter said by nature Pampa Regional Medical Center doesn’t have the resources that metropolitan hospitals have.

“If we had not quarantined people the second it came into our community and we had a massive spread like in Moore County or Potter County, or in other counties in the state, it would take seven or eight extreme patient cases to be on ventilators and our resources are expended,” Porter said. “When you think of a population of 21,000 people, it’s pretty easy to get to a number of eight or 10.”

Porter said there have been measures taken by those in the community and even the County to help quarantined patients with groceries or other needs since they cannot leave the house.

“It’s not your since you’re quarantined that now you’re on an island and there is no support for you,” Porter said. 

Porter also said the County and DSHS are double-, triple-checking numbers every day to make sure they are reporting the correct numbers.

Personal information and what can be disclosed

One of the most important variables affecting the County is protecting the personal information of those who test positive for COVID-19.

“The flip side of that (the protection of personal information) is if there is someone next door who has it, I want to know so I can stay away from them,” Porter said. “There’s a fear-factor there. My issue with that is I know how I would react if I knew someone who lived next door to me had it. But I’m not sure how every average citizen would react.”

Because of Amarillo’s location of covering both Potter and Randall Counties, and Amarillo Public Health being the health authorities, they have different jurisdiction than Gray County, which has three municipalities (Pampa, Lefors and McLean) within it’s jurisdiction.

“It’s not the Potter County Health Department or the Randall County Health Department, it’s the Amarillo Health Department,” Porter said. “The Amarillo Health Department is responsible for the city of Amarillo which is partially in Potter County and Partially in Randall County. So it makes sense to them, and to me it makes sense, for the Amarillo Health Authority to be dictating the numbers.”

Gray County is completely different because Pampa is the main population hub for the County. Porter said it’s been a challenge not to release how many have it across all three of the County’s cities. But legally he can’t do so.

“At the beginning of this I was instructed by our legal council (a law firm in Austin who represents all Texas counties) about what can be released and what can’t be released,” Porter said. 

“If I violate someone’s HIPAA rights or I cause a panic, now I am the instrument who has created that. There is a liability there on the County’s part and on me personally that prevents me from putting that information out there. It has been a challenge because I am a transparent person.”

The reasoning behind not focusing on one area is to prevent any retaliatory actions, panic and fear-mongering.

Travel-related versus community-spread

Porter could not discuss specific cases, but said there have been cases that have been travel-related and were deemed that way because they had come from someone who had traveled “great distances.”

“Community-related means ‘I am in my community and I have caught this virus through community contact,’” Porter said. “Travel-related is more the catch-all of ‘I’m not sure where I got it but I was traveling when I got it.’ An example is, ‘I was in Dallas for work, I went to Dallas. I was at this hotel, I got gas at these three places, I ate at these four places, I came back and I tested positive.’ There is no specific place they got the virus at.

“But in community-spread, there is an identified place that people are getting it.”

Porter said there are a couple of indeterminate cases because the individuals, for whatever reason, opted not to tell the Department of State Health Services where they had been when they may have contracted the virus.

“We can’t force people to give us the information,” Porter said. “We can’t force people to answer the phone call whenever we are investigating this. That’s another one of those situations where there is a panic situation of ‘we’ve got people that won’t answer the phone,’ but we have an established protocol on what to do if they do not answer the phone.”

Porter said it’s not a secret that the Jordan and Baten Units, as well as McLean Nursing homes, have played a part of the spread of the virus problems.

A major challenge of the COVID-19 virus is the Center for Disease Control says 80 percent of the people who have the virus are unaware.

“Those people are asymptomatic and it’s easy to spread,” Porter said. “One percent may be the death rate, which was thrown out in the beginning. But if you look at our population, one percent of 21,000 people is a pretty substantial number. That’s why we want to try as hard as we can to mitigate the spread if we could and to protect our elderly and those with underlying health conditions.”

The County, dispatchers and other first responders are made aware of who is in quarantine and Porter wanted to assure the public the County is not “turning a blind eye” to those who are in quarantine.

Tests at the start of COVID-19 versus tests later into the pandemic

There is a theory out there that the County is not testing that many people in the public. Porter said at the start of the process, there was a challenge to get people tested.

“We had very limited tests,” Porter said. “Our health professionals, God bless their souls, were not prepared for this. Testing has become more and more readily available. There were a lot of people who just wanted to be tested even though they didn’t have it just for peace-of-mind. That’s a resource we could not expend.”

There is a criteria needing to be met to make sure those who may have allergies, the flu or other common health problems don’t have those common illnesses.

As time went on, more resources have become available and there is still a criteria, but if there are symptoms common with COVID-19, they are getting tested.

“There are so many places now to get tested,” Porter said. “Amarillo has multiple test sites to where if we had to we could send them to get tested. We’ve have two mobile testing sites come into the county, one in Pampa and one in McLean. That’s been part of flattening the curve. Get the resources in place so we could test multiple people in our citizenry or help to fight the virus through the hospital system.”

Getting the state to come to Pampa

As cases in the Texas Panhandle began to grow in Potter, Randall, Deaf Smith and Moore Counties, the state and federal governments sent more resources and strike forces to help combat the spread of COVID-19.

Porter said while the County has seen increases at the prisons and McLean Care Center there hasn’t been a dire need for state/federal officials in Pampa/Gray County.

“I’m in daily contact with DSHS typically two or three times/day,” Porter said. “We’ve never really had the thought of Gray County being overrun. Part of it is our numbers were so big with our prison guard and inmate populations.”

Porter added there were two substantial jumps on the numbers and both were related to McLean Care Center.

“So it’s hard to really gauge what our community spread is when they are confined to a prison or nursing home,” Porter said. “The State has protocols as to what they do for a nursing home outbreak. I’m confident DSHS and THAC (Texas Healthcare Advisory Council) are on top of the nursing home situation in McLean.”

Porter is also confident that in the event there was a jump of 30 to 40 cases in a day or over two days, it would only take a phone call to DSHS or THAC to get state aid in Gray County.

“They and Texas Emergency management have been phenomenal through this,” Porter said. “The people we have regionally for DSHS and TEM are the best in the state and they have done a phenomenal job of being proactive to what we need and finding out how they can provide it.”

Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Inmates at Jordan and Baten Units who have COVID-19 count as citizens of Gray County solely when it comes to COVID-19 cases, not during a census and, of course, not as taxpayers.

“At the beginning of this, the majority of the cases were coming from the prison between guards and inmates,” Porter said. “That inmate population is still under observation and typically we were notified of a positive test out of the prison system (Texas Department of Criminal Justice). 

“While they were inside the prison, they were not counted as positives against our county. But when they got to where they needed to have medical resources and were transferred to Northwest Texas Hospital or into our hospital, that’s when they became citizens of Gray County.”

Porter said there haven’t been transfers from Clements, Neal, Gray County Jail or any other institutes to Jordan/Baten Units.

Regarding Governor Greg Abbott’s order to re-open Texas

On Monday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued his plans for Phase II of re-opening Texas, but excluded Moore, Potter, Randall and Deaf Smith Counties because of the spread of COVID-19 that continues in those areas.

Porter has mixed feelings about the re-opening of Texas, and says he feels certain there will be an out-break.

“We’ve done a pretty good job of controlling and isolating positive cases,” Porter said. “But the problem I see now that we’ve started to loosen some of these requirements, more asymptomatic people are going to be out and about spreading this virus and not realize it.”

Porter re-iterated the protection of medical resources continues to be among the most important things to consider when addressing the pandemic and re-opening.

“It’s going to be more imperative of us to identify and do contact-tracing of who is out and who has it and where did you get it from,” Porter said. “This is not going to go away for a while. I keep telling my wife that 2022, we ought to be back to normal. My reasoning for that is we will have a vaccine hopefully by then.”

Porter said he understands what Abbott is doing and agrees with him slowing down Amarillo’s re-opening.

“It’s one of my biggest fears right now,” Porter said. “You relax these social distancing requirements we’ve had for a month and suddenly, everyone in Pampa wants to go eat/shop in Amarillo. Now we have a substantial part of our citizenry going to Amarillo to stretch their legs a little bit from the last six weeks and you have a bunch of people bringing it (COVID-19) back.”

In closing

Porter wants to encourage everyone to do their homework and research everything before believing what they read on social media.

“There are a lot of ‘experts’ out there who are misinformed,” Porter said. “[Some of the things being spread] is irresponsible and down-right mean as far as I’m concerned. That (who has a case or has died from COVID-19) is not information that will be out there unless the family wants it out there. That was inaccurate. Facebook is not a good place to go get your information from.”

Porter said Porter gets the calls from DSHS in regards to cases and then communicates the information to Gray County Health Authority Dr. Kevin Sieck and the City of Pampa. The City of Pampa then communicates and reports the information at www.pampaalerts.com and the media.

The second thing Porter wanted to let the public know is there are reasons why the County doesn’t put out information.

“Be patient and rely on the fact we are doing everything we can if there is a situation where there is an outbreak of this virus,” Porter said. “We will be contacting people so they are aware they have been in contact with or around someone who has had it.”

As always, stay vigilant, wash your hands and be safe.

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