Gov. Greg Abbott says Amarillo has ‘turned a corner’ after coronavirus flare-up

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announces the reopening of more Texas businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic at a press conference at the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Monday, May 18, 2020. Abbott said that childcare facilities, youth camps, some professional sports, and bars may now begin to fully or partially reopen their facilities as outlined by regulations listed on the Open Texas website. (Lynda M. Gonzalez/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool) (AP)

Gov. Greg Abbott and state and local health officials expressed confidence Wednesday that they have made major progress in containing a hot spot of the new coronavirus in the Amarillo area, saying that the surge in state and federal resources sent to the region will be a model for how the state responds to local flare-ups in Texas in the future.

Roughly three weeks after Abbott announced that “surge response teams” made up of health workers, emergency response workers and the National Guard would head to Amarillo, he said Wednesday afternoon that the number of new cases in the area has been on the decline.

In Potter and Randall counties, where a spike in infections was tied, in part, to local meatpacking plants, Abbott said that the state “almost doubled” in the span of 12 days the number of people who had been tested for the coronavirus. While 734 people tested positive for COVID-19 on May 16, Abbott said, there was “a slow trickle down” in the number of cases until Monday, when zero people tested positive.

Roughly three weeks after state and federal teams descended on the Panhandle to address the explosion of new coronavirus cases tied to local meatpacking plants, Gov. Greg Abbott will give an update from the region. Local officials and leaders are expected to join Abbott in Amarillo for the update.

The state recorded more than 700 new cases of coronavirus on May 16 after targeted testing at meatpacking plants in the area. The state's "surge response teams," which include health officials, emergency response workers and the National Guard, aimed to provide more personal protective equipment and testing supplies, and they worked with local officials to put in place additional standards to contain the outbreak.

Watch Wednesday’s news conference live starting at 2 p.m. Central time, courtesy of KXAS-TV.

“You see the reason why there was a need to have a surge response team to assist this region respond to the challenge,” Abbott said at a press conference in Amarillo. “But also you see extremely positive results that lead to the ability to say that Amarillo has turned a corner on its pathway toward a positive, effective resolution of this particular hot spot.”

In addition to the “surge response teams” sent to the Amarillo area, the federal government sent a strike force there in early May to respond to an increase of positive cases in the area. At the time the teams were sent, the rate of infections in Randall County per 1,000 residents was more than four times that of the state’s biggest cities. In Moore County just north of Amarillo, the rate was more than 10 times higher.

State health officials previously confirmed they were investigating a cluster of cases tied to the massive JBS Beef meatpacking plant in Moore County. Abbott said the region also faced the challenge of having hot spots in local nursing homes and prison facilities.

Abbott said Wednesday that because numbers from May 13 showed a downward trend in coronavirus cases, the surge teams will be used as a model to handle future flare-ups in other vulnerable Texas counties.

“Amarillo is an example of how Texas is going about the process of responding to COVID-19 and this particular stage of COVID-19’s life in Texas,” Abbott said.

The governor’s strategy so far has been to reopen much of the state economically while clamping down on local hot spots and sending resources to areas with aggressive flare-ups until their numbers are under control. He previously announced that the state would be testing every resident and staff member in nursing homes, which have emerged as magnets for the coronavirus. At the same time, the governor and state health officials have kept a close eye on hospital capacity, ensuring that there are enough resources to care for the people who get sick.

The governor said he expected a second spike in confirmed cases later this week due to more people being tested at the JBS plant. He later acknowledged the potential for a second wave statewide as the state resumes its economic reopening process — which Abbott said he hopes Amarillo and the neighboring Panhandle area can soon be a part of.

“While so many people in this state are suffering from the coronavirus, there are so many more people who are suffering economically,” Abbott said.

Should another wave of COVID-19 affect the state, Abbott said the state was prepared to “send in these surge response teams that will be able to tamp down any flare up, using the model we have seen in Amarillo.”

The governor began a phased reopening of the economy in late April, letting the state’s stay-at-home order expire and allowing retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls to operate at 25% capacity. He then allowed barbershops and salons to reopen May 8 under certain restrictions.

Abbott said the state was continuing to test 20,000 people daily for the coronavirus. Still, his announcement Wednesday came as the total number of coronavirus cases in Texas increased to 57,921, including 1,562 deaths, according to the latest data from the Department of State Health Services. Out of Texas’ 254 counties, 230 are reporting cases.