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Gov. Greg Abbott issues directives to expand Texas hospital capacity, but stops short of shelter-in-place order

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Gov. Greg Abbott at the state Capitol on March 13, 2020. Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott took multiple measures Sunday designed to expand hospital staffing and capacity, but declined to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order — even as calls for such an action increased as the new coronavirus continued to spread across the state.

In an effort to free up hospital beds in anticipation of an influx of patients sick with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, Abbott ordered health care professionals to postpone "all surgeries that are not medically necessary" and suspended regulations to allow hospitals to treat more than one patient in a room.

But he did not order all Texans to shelter in place, noting that there are still many counties in Texas where no cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed. He noted Sunday that less than 48 hours had passed since he issued an executive order that urged all Texans to limit public gatherings to 10 people, prohibited eating in at restaurants and bars and temporarily closed schools. That order went into effect midnight Friday and goes through midnight April 3.

"We need to see the level of effectiveness of the executive order," Abbott said.

Officials in some of the hardest-hit parts of the state had been calling for Abbott to make the move. A group of North Texas officials, including the mayors of Dallas and Fort Worth, sent Abbott a letter Saturday asking him to “consider mandatory shelter-in-place orders” statewide. The officials were joined by several health care executives.

"We must do all that we can now to protect our patients, our healthcare professionals, and our first responders so we can save lives and restore the economic vibrancy of our cities and our great state as quickly as possible,” the letter said.

Abbott said that his decision not to issue a statewide order should not stop local officials from issuing such orders in their jurisdictions.

"Local officials have the authority to implement more strict standards than I as governor have implemented in the state of Texas. … If they choose to do so I would applaud them for doing so," he said.

Abbott added he would continue to monitor the spread of the virus across the state.

“I will always remain flexible and on a moments notice be ready to take whatever strategies on a statewide level to make sure we are doing all that we can” to fight the spread of COVID-19, he said.

As of noon Sunday, there were at least 355 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas and six reported deaths. At least 8,756 people have been tested.

This developing story will be updated soon.