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Coronavirus: The pandemic through Texans’ eyes

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Each week, The Texas Tribune is featuring the stories of a group of Texans from different parts of the state and different walks of life who are confronting the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. New installments will be published every Wednesday. Click on a name to jump directly to a story.

Risking her health so others can eat

Liz Salas, 23, is a food pantry employee in Dallas.

BY STACY FERNÁNDEZ

Some days after work, Liz Salas sits alone on her couch in her first solo apartment and worries: It could be today, it could be tomorrow. Or maybe I’ve already contracted the virus.

Salas is 23 and works as an intake specialist at the CitySquare Food Pantry in Dallas. Because she helps provide food for people in need, the county deemed Salas’ job an essential business. So while other Texans have lost their jobs or begun working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Salas keeps going to work from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week.

On any given day, Salas and her team are in contact with more than 350 people. The food pantry provides them with face masks and gloves. They do their best to keep 6 feet away from those who pick up groceries.

“I’m scared,” she admitted to her mom during their daily phone call. Her parents and three younger sisters are quarantined together in her childhood home about 20 minutes away.

Salas says she feels stuck in a loop since the virus changed everyone’s lives. She leaves her apartment for work — her first real job since she graduated from North Carolina’s Queens University of Charlotte in 2018 with a degree in political science and government — and when she gets home at the end of the day, she can only muster the energy to have her daily check-in with her mom, shower, eat and go to sleep. Then she repeats the cycle the next day.

“I knew I was going to struggle being on my own, and I knew there were going to be certain obstacles that would get in my way, but I wasn't expecting this to be the first thing I’d be scared of,” Salas told her mom, who insists that Salas stop by the house if she needs groceries or toilet paper.

Salas has been going by her parents’ house once a week for an hour, but she said she’s considering stopping her visits because she’s scared of possibly exposing her family.

Under other circumstances, Salas would welcome her mother’s protectiveness, but her mom has three other daughters to take care of — Samantha, 18; Dyana, 6; and Mariana, 3 — and her own worries about being laid off from the doctor’s office where she works as a receptionist. The doctors have switched to a skeleton crew after a cascade of canceled procedures.

Salas at least has job security. “I’ll be okay,” she said.

As the number of people who have lost their jobs or seen their incomes cut surges in Texas — more than 275,000 Texans filed for unemployment benefits in a single week last month — food banks have seen demand soar. (Food banks primarily store food to distribute to food pantries, which offer it to the public.)

Salas’ food pantry, which is run by a Dallas nonprofit, used to give out about 75 pounds of food daily, placed on shelves like in a grocery store. People shopped around for what they needed and could sometimes take home whole boxes of produce when there was an abundance, Salas said.

Last week, Salas said, the pantry had only 30 pounds of food on a given day — she said it’s receiving smaller shipments from the grocery stores it relies on — but almost a third more people arrived to claim some. One by one, Salas and her team created thousands of grab-and-go bags for patrons to pick up.

Salas said she’s grateful to have a job while millions are unemployed. And it motivates her to know she’s helping meet an essential need — feeding people.

“A lot of our folks are older, so if they’re risking their health [to come to the food pantry], then I’ll risk mine so they can have an extra day of food,” she said. “I’m OK with that.”

At a small West Texas hospital, “the calm before the storm”

Donna Boatright, 66, is a hospital administrator in Sweetwater.

BY EDGAR WALTERS

Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital in Sweetwater was a roughly 35-bed facility two weeks ago. Now, after making changes to ramp up capacity in anticipation of a crush of patients sick from the new coronavirus, it’s trying to become a 50-bed facility.

But there’s one problem hounding Donna Boatright, the hospital’s administrator. She has plenty of rooms, but not enough beds to fill them.

“That was one of the shortages that really caught me a little bit off guard this week,” Boatright, 66, said in late March. “Where do you find beds at this point?”

The hospital is trying to get creative. Can they rent beds, maybe from a nearby nursing home with some to spare? “Are there any closed hospitals that we can scavenge from? Those types of things,” Boatright said.

Boatright grew up in Sweetwater, and after leaving home to get a degree in nursing, she returned as quickly as she could. She’s worked at the hospital since 1975 and has been its chief executive for 11 years. Her husband works at nearby Ludlum Measurements, a manufacturer of radiation detection equipment such as Geiger counters.

“We’ve teasingly told our children that, ‘Your dad and me and the liquor stores are all essential businesses,’” she said.

They have two sons, the elder in Houston and the younger in Fort Worth. Her younger son, a big fan of the film “The Big Lebowski,” recently turned 40, and the family had planned a bowling party to celebrate before the pandemic mucked everything up, Boatright said. Instead, they spent the evening on a “fun and chaotic” video conference call.

Nolan County has yet to report a coronavirus case, but Rolling Plains is still making preparations. All visitors to the emergency room must check in at a generator-powered tent outside, where staff wearing protective equipment check them for symptoms.

The hospital doesn’t have enough masks, gowns and face shields to protect doctors and nurses who are bracing for an influx of COVID-19 patients, Boatright said, and Rolling Plains recently had to place protective equipment under lock and key after noticing that members of the public were stealing it.

Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital has erected a tent outside of its emergency room to screen all visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital has erected a tent outside of its emergency room to screen all visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy of Donna Boatright

“Who can blame them? They can’t get them either, and they’re scared,” Boatright said. “You can imagine how desperate somebody might be.”

Still, it stings knowing that her staff can’t get what they need as personal protective equipment has become scarce and prices have surged. The hospital has already implemented conservation measures, including being more judicious about when staff wear masks and following federal guidelines about how to use a mask more than once. The hospital is also reeling from a loss of revenue, particularly after postponing all elective surgeries. Boatright is anxiously waiting to see how much — if any — relief her facility will get from the federal government.

There was one recent bit of good news: After being quoted in a Texas Tribune story about the financial hardships facing rural hospitals, Boatright said an Austin businessman donated a shipment of N95 masks to Rolling Plains.

“People have stepped up,” she said.

Now she’s hoping that they’ll keep stepping up. She needs more staff, fast.

The hospital has reached out to retired nurses in the community to see if they can help screen patients or take on other less strenuous tasks. Rolling Plains also hired a nursing student who was in her final semester. She’ll help screen patients and will later be able to assist intensive care nurses, if needed, Boatright said.

“We feel like we’re in the calm before the storm,” she said.

An oilfield worker turns to music when work dries up

Joseph Norman, 37, is an oil well technician in Midland.

BY MITCHELL FERMAN

Joseph Anthony Norman didn’t mind waking up at 6 a.m. during the summers as a kid. His father brought him to work in the West Texas oil fields — and paid him.

Learning tank gauges, rod pumps and flow meters was part of life in the 1980s and ‘90s Permian Basin, Norman said. He’s been using those skills as a well technician, expanding the business he started in Midland seven years ago with his now-wife, Belinda, who is pregnant with their third child.

But since last month, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down large swaths of the economy and the price of oil plummeted, Norman said they’ve lost 95% of their business.

“It don’t look good at all,” he said.

Norman, 37, grew up in Midland with his two older brothers and his father, Jerry, who was among the first African Americans hired by Exxon in the early 1970s and raised the boys after divorcing their mother.

Norman went to Midland Lee High School and earned Texas defensive player of the year honors as a linebacker his senior year, when the team won its second consecutive state championship. He also joined the school’s choir, which toured the U.S. and countries like England, Ireland and Scotland.

“It allowed me to see the whole world,” Norman said. “We performed in abbeys — that’s what they called them over there — that were 800 years old. The acoustics in a place like that is moving, it was like a spiritual experience.”

He attended Texas Tech University on a football scholarship, playing alongside his older brother John, while their brother Josh played for rival Oklahoma.

When Norman returned to Midland after leaving school, the film “Friday Night Lights” had put out an open casting call in his hometown, and he tried out. Norman made it onto the cast, and later landed roles in other movies.

He also made his first big splash in the oil industry, thanks to a longtime mentor who had started an oil company and was looking to invest in Midland, Norman said. With his father’s help, Norman introduced the man to a local independent oil and gas producer — and earned a six-figure finder’s fee when the contract was signed.

“I thought I was a hot shot: I got some Gucci glasses, I got a pinstripe suit, I got a brand new truck and put 22 [inch rims] on it,” Norman said, laughing.

He headed to California, where he worked in mortgage and real estate with his uncle. But he lost most of his money in the financial crisis of 2008.

“So I went home to Midland with my tail tucked between my legs,” Norman said. He spent his remaining money to buy his childhood home from his father and went to work for his dad’s oil company.

Norman and Melinda — who first met as college friends — started their own business, Forty A&M LLC, in 2013. Their skills complemented each other — Norman went into the field to work on oil wells while Melinda organized calls and meetings.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck Texas, Norman’s work has dried up. So he’s been home with Melinda and their two boys, Maxwell Jackson, 9, and Joseph Lee, 3, trying to figure out what’s next.

Maxwell Norman, 9, talks to a neighbor over his family's back fence in Midland.

Maxwell Norman, 9, talks to a neighbor over his family's back fence in Midland. Courtesy of Joseph Anthony Norman

“I had to pivot,” Norman said. “I can’t sit around and wait for someone to call me for work.”

So he renewed his love for singing. He wrote and recorded a song, “Quarantine Lover,” with his brother Josh.

“I stayed up all night writing the song by myself,” Norman said. Josh helped him get it on the major music streaming platforms.

“So overnight I went from being a contract well technician to being a published artist,” he said.

Norman said his kids love the song, and “My wife thinks I’m crazy.”

“A 5-year-old doesn’t understand cancer”: A boy’s treatment can’t wait

Rupal Shah, 45, is an education technology executive in San Antonio.

BY EMMA PLATOFF

On March 16, Texas reported its first death linked to the new coronavirus, the Texas GOP delayed its annual convention, Dallas and Houston closed down bars and restaurants, and, in San Antonio, Nikhil Shah turned 5 on his first day of chemotherapy.

The Shahs were at Chuy’s at the end of February when Nina Shah, Nik’s 6-year-old sister, picked him up. He winced. It turned out to be a Wilms tumor, the most common type of kidney cancer in children.

Within 24 hours, he was in surgery at Methodist Children’s Hospital in San Antonio. Doctors removed a tumor and a kidney. He stayed a week in the hospital, then started radiation treatments. On his birthday, he got radiation and chemo. (Yes, presents were in order: “It felt like Christmas,” said his father, Rupal Shah.)

The Shahs learned that there is a set protocol for Wilms tumors, a tried and tested method, Rupal Shah recalled. Doctors hesitate to diverge from it. They discussed it with their oncologist — did treatment make sense as doctors across the state and the country gear up for what could be an onslaught of COVID-19 patients?

The answer: “It’s not advisable for us to go off the plan,” Shah said.

So the virus will not delay Nik’s treatment the way it has delayed school for his sister, or stop it altogether the way it has halted all but essential activities in their city. On Mondays, he’ll go in for treatment at a San Antonio clinic. Some weeks he’ll have to go twice. The course is set to run through September, so he may not start kindergarten then, even if schools are open.

Nikhil Shah and his 6-year-old sister, Nina.

Nikhil Shah and his 6-year-old sister, Nina. Courtesy of Rupal Shah

During the first week Nik spent in the hospital, at the start of March, it was hard to pay attention to the news. Stories about the deadly virus were just beginning to dominate coverage. Shoppers were just beginning to stock up on non-perishables. In San Antonio, Fiesta was still scheduled to go on as planned in April.

A week later, on Nik’s birthday, the city had limited gatherings to 50 people and its biggest annual event had been canceled.

“It just became apparent for us that the virus outbreak was going to be a much different experience” than it was for other people, Shah said.

Nik’s treatments make him immunocompromised, meaning he is particularly vulnerable to the virus that has already killed tens of thousands of people worldwide and infected at least 8,200 in Texas — which is likely a vast undercount given the lack of testing. What little researchers know about the deadly virus indicates it is most severe in the elderly and the immunocompromised.

“It’s not just the elderly — it’s a lot of immunocompromised people out there, young and old,” Shah said. “Everybody’s dealing with some issues, dealing with the virus. But we just have to take extra precautions.”

That will likely mean an informal shelter-in-place order for the family through the fall, even if local officials allow life to resume as normal. Shah is an executive at an education technology company, and he’s used to working remotely. His wife, Lea, is a former school psychologist who has taken with verve to the task of home schooling the kids. They live on an acre and a half north of the city, almost in the Hill Country, and they have plenty of outdoor space. So far Nik has been a “trooper,” his father said.

“He understands he’s just got to go through treatment,” he said. “A 5-year-old doesn’t understand cancer.”

At their clinic, as in many in the state, medical personnel are taking extra precautions: limiting visitors, screening employees and patients alike for fever before they enter the facility. But “there’s only so much you can do,” Shah said.

“One of our own”: Texas' first COVID-19 death was personal for county judge

Nathan McDonald, 64, is the county judge in Matagorda County.

BY CASSANDRA POLLOCK

When Matagorda County confirmed its first case of the new coronavirus last month, Nathan McDonald said “it knocked our hats in the dirt a little bit … because it was one of our own.”

But the second case soon after seemed to hit McDonald, who has been Matagorda County judge since 2007, even harder — and it marked Texas’ first COVID-19 fatality.

McDonald said he went back years with the man, a 97-year-old who died in the hospital. Testing later confirmed he had the virus. McDonald had gone to high school with the man’s daughter and helped the man’s son train to make the high school’s varsity basketball team.

“We lost just an excellent human being,” McDonald said. “I don’t know how else to say it.”

As the county’s chief executive, McDonald has led his rural community through plenty of disasters before, including the massive Hurricane Harvey in 2017. And now, he is spearheading the local response to a crisis that has upended virtually every aspect of the state’s government, economy and public health system.

The county, home to about 36,000 people — “We’re patently rural, and we’re happy to be that way,” said McDonald, a 64-year-old retired-businessman-turned-rancher — is about an hour and a half southwest of Houston and includes part of the state’s coastline.

McDonald has lived in the county for most of his life and said he ran for judge 14 years ago in a quest to “build the best rural county in the state of Texas.” He lives on a 200-acre family ranch with his wife and occasionally helps deliver calves. His son, daughter-in-law and grandson live on a 20-acre plot of land along the southwest border of the property.

Roughly three weeks since the county announced that first case, Matagorda County has reported more than 40 confirmed COVID-19 cases and three coronavirus-related deaths. McDonald said the silver lining — if there is one — is that most of the county residents who have tested positive for the virus appear to be on the mend.

McDonald said he and other local officials have been working around the clock, often 18 to 20 hours a day, to keep residents informed about how to keep themselves safe. The Matagorda County Emergency Operation Center has pushed out dozens of news releases, and McDonald, along with other officials, has done a number of livestreams on Facebook, updating residents on the latest happenings.

Mitch Thames, the county spokesperson, said the community is taking the pandemic seriously, and a big reason is because they’re listening to McDonald — “someone they know and trust.”

McDonald recently issued a mandatory stay-at-home order for county residents. The county has also been adhering to Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide executive order, which is in place through the end of April.

McDonald said he’s also getting constant counsel from the medical professionals at the Matagorda County Regional Medical Center so that “when [information] goes out, we have all the facts there.”

In mid-March, while delivering a video update from his third-floor courtroom, McDonald said the county “is in a bit of dire straits” because of the virus — but that “we’ve not let that break our spirit, nor have we let it slow us down.”

“I’m looking out at the arguably — but not too arguably — most beautiful town square in rural Texas,” he said, pointing toward the window. “Today, it’s a bit decimated and a bit desolate.”

Shifting to homeschooling is big adjustment for eighth-grader

Genevieve Gilmore, 14, is a student in Celina.

BY ALIYYA SWABY

Just a couple of weeks into her switch to online learning after the COVID-19 pandemic caused her school to close its doors, 14-year-old Genevieve Gilmore had what her mother Katherine calls "a breakdown."

It had already taken her more than a semester to get used to eighth grade at the highly-rated Lorene Rogers Middle School in Prosper Independent School District, in the outskirts of the Dallas suburbs. While almost every student is going through a period of adjustment with public schools shuttered statewide at least through May 4, Genevieve has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and focusing on her work and staying on task already is a heavy lift.

Her teachers would take time to pull her aside for one-on-one mini-lessons after teaching the whole class — the extra attention required under federal law to keep her learning on track.

When Genevieve realized she would no longer be getting that attention, she panicked about finishing out the semester from home.

"I felt very stressed. I didn't really know what to do next," she said. "I felt I was going to hit a steep downhill."

She was especially worried about absorbing abstract math lessons without a separate lesson from her teacher and tutoring before and after school.

Genevieve Gilmore, 14, studies with her brother Charlie, 11, in their home in Celina.

Genevieve Gilmore, 14, studies with her brother Charlie, 11, in their home in Celina. Courtesy of Genevieve Gilmore

Now that nearly all Texas public schools have switched to online teaching, Texas still requires them to continue serving students with special needs, including ADHD, but has provided only vague guidance about how to do so at a distance. The gap has required some parents to step up, if they can, to advocate for and homeschool their children the best they can. Without that additional support, many will fall even further behind.

Katherine Gilmore used to work at a retail store in Prosper until it closed in mid-March. Now, she spends her days homeschooling Genevieve and her younger brother and step-brother — 11-year-olds Camden and Charlie — all day in the game room upstairs, explaining lessons, troubleshooting technological mishaps, and keeping everyone focused on their video lessons. Her husband, a senior vice president at an insurance company, works from home downstairs, kept company by high school freshman Carson, 15, 19-year-old Jillian and her friend Ally, 20, who is temporarily staying with the family.

Genevieve and her siblings lay their supplies out on the pool table and move from the table to the floor to the couch throughout the day. Each of them has a laptop.

When Genevieve failed to finish assignments for each class every day, after remote learning began, Katherine Gilmore would get frequent emails from the school warning her about the missed progress. Last week, she took matters into her own hands: Instead of tackling multiple classes per day, Genevieve would spend one day per week doing all the assignments for one or two classes.

"It's not Jenny's fault. It's just managing on her own the time to take classes and time to spend on them," Katherine Gilmore said.

Last Wednesday, around noon, two hours into the virtual school day, Genevieve hadn't made much progress on her English or college prep class assignments. But the panic that had previously seized her subsided, with her mom as substitute teacher: "I was happy that I have time to talk to someone during the day now."

And Katherine Gilmore is settling into her new normal: "It's a full-time job."

Trying to keep an empty restaurant alive is still full-time work

Debbie Chen, 49, is a restaurant owner in Houston.

BY ALEX SAMUELS

Debbie Chen finds herself working more often than not these days. It’s not because the restaurant she co-owns is busy, but just the opposite — it has seen a near fatal drop in business, and she’s working hard to keep it afloat.

Chen, 49, loves to eat. A year ago, she took a leap of faith and decided to buy an ownership stake in Shabu House in Houston’s Chinatown. The popular restaurant, which serves Asian comfort food, is nestled in a plaza where people normally “have to circle around a few times” to find a parking spot, she said.

Now, thanks to the novel coronavirus, it’s a ghost town.

On top of the restrictions that have shut down dine-in eating in Houston, Chen says her business — like others owned by Asian Americans — has also been struck by the stigma that some people, including politicians, have tried to put on her community by verbally connecting the virus with China.

Chen said she hasn’t personally experienced any anti-Asian harassment. But she’s seen the stories of racially motivated attacks that she believes has created a sense of fear in the Asian community.

“When the coronavirus first started, Chinatown was hit with a lot of rumors,” Chen said. “We saw business drop between 50 to 90% depending on the day” — and that was before the restaurant restrictions began in mid-March.

She’s furloughed five of the restaurant’s seven employees and customers have slowed to a trickle since they had to switch to takeout only. She said the restaurant has brought in $77 on its best day since the shutdown. Some days, it doesn’t see any sales.

Chen, whose father is a chemist and mother is a dentist, seemed destined for something other than owning a restaurant when she was growing up in Nebraska and Houston.

After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in economics, Chen returned to Houston, where she worked a series of odd jobs, applied to law school, worked under mayors Lee Brown and Bill White and did consulting work as a community organizer before investing in Shabu House.

Chen has a great uncle who ran a well-known restaurant in Taiwan, and she grew up on Hot Pot, a staple in Asian American culture that she compared to a fondue: people cook vegetables and meats in a hot broth before dipping it in a sauce.

She’s hoping for success like her uncle saw. But now her restaurant’s gasping for life, and Chen is trying to boost business by designing Shabu House’s first website and promoting their takeout offerings on social media.

“It’s a real challenge,” she said. “I know a lot of places are trying to transition to doing takeout or to-go, but that’s not going to be enough to replace people coming out to eat.”

She also misses her mother, who went to California to visit Chen’s sister in late December and was supposed to return in February or March. After the virus spread, she decided to stay in the Golden State temporarily out of safety concerns.

Chen doesn’t think things will go back to normal anytime soon, “Especially with so many people who have been laid off or furloughed. Until all those people are employed again, people just aren’t going to go out to eat as much.”

And she still hasn’t told her parents she invested in the restaurant. She says she didn’t want to tell them until it was successful, because “they would think I was crazy.”

“If I’m not able to continue and we have to shut our doors,” Chen said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever tell them.”

Alone at the bridge: A lawyer relocates to Mexico to help migrants

Taylor Levy, 33, is an immigration lawyer in El Paso.

BY JULIÁN AGUILAR

EL PASO — When millions of Texans last month were deciding which supplies they would need if the state was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, Taylor Levy had a different decision to make.

Levy, a 33-year-old immigration attorney, said an unexpected influence convinced her to move across the Texas-Mexico border — the cancellation of the NBA season on March 11.

“For whatever reason that felt like a big turning point to me,” Levy said by phone from Mexico. “I spent the next day thinking, ‘I bet the border is going to close or I bet travel is going to become more restricted.’”

Because she helps the migrants and asylum seekers who have flocked to the border over the past two years, Levy decided to relocate to Ciudad Juárez, just in case. Ten days later, the two countries announced cross-border traffic would be limited to trade and essential travel only.

Levy’s love for the border started while she was a student at the University of Colorado and went on a spring break trip to El Paso geared toward teaching students about immigration and the border.

After graduation, Levy moved to El Paso in 2009 and began working at the Annunciation House, a network of immigration shelters where she lived with migrants for two years and filled a half dozen roles from press liaison to house coordinator — she managed activities and work assignments and trained volunteers.

“I just really fell in love with the model,” she said. ”It’s all about working in solidarity and living with migrants.”

She later worked at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso as an accredited representative – a Department of Justice designation for people trained to represent immigrants in court — then decided to attend law school. She passed the state bar in 2019, started her own firm and had a small immigration practice before the pandemic hit.

Today, Levy says she’s glad she temporarily relocated. Rather than doing paid legal work, she’s acting as an unpaid, informal adviser to the migrants who are still in Ciudad Juárez.

“Since I don’t work for an agency and I just support myself with private donations and grants from individuals, I knew I was going to be pretty much one of the only people who could continue to work freely,” she said.

Although hearings under the Migrant Protection Protocols program, which sends asylum seekers back to Mexico until their hearings in American courtrooms, have been postponed until May 1 due to the pandemic, asylum seekers are still required to arrive at the Paso Del Norte bridge at 4 a.m. to receive court documents indicating when their next hearing is scheduled.

When they arrive, Levy is waiting at the foot of the bridge to answer their questions.

“They don’t know where to go, a lot of times they don’t know they have to pay five pesos [at the bridge turnstiles],” she said. “It’s all that panic there, so I try to make it a somewhat more pleasant and streamlined procedure.”

Levy gives migrants quick briefings on their rights and what to expect in their hearings. She refers some of them to a network of pro bono lawyers who can help them with asylum claims.

“This morning I forwarded the case of a man who is an amputee who shouldn’t be in MPP,” she said. “ And I helped a pregnant woman who passed out on the bridge.”

Levy isn’t planning too far ahead right now. She has friends taking care of her two dogs in El Paso and is taking things day by day.

“I feel somewhat silly sometimes standing at the bridge for seven hours,” she said. “But had I not been there, those connections would not have been able to have been made.”

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