Officials with the city of Brenham and Washington County made a disaster declaration this morning in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
In a meeting Wednesday afternoon at EMS Station No. 2 center on U.S. 290, County Judge John Durrenberger and Brenham City Manager James Fisher said they both planned to issue disaster declarations at their meetings today.
“We are following the president’s recommendation of 10 people to a group,” Durrenberger said Wednesday. “That’s not in a declaration yet, but it will be.”
“It will be from the city as well, per the mayor,” Fisher said to the group.
The comments came during a meeting of what EMS Director Kevin Deramus called “the Washington County coalition,” which includes officials from the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, Washington County Emergency Management, Fisher and other city officials, Brenham’s fire chief, Brenham Nursing and Rehab and other nursing homes in the area, the Department of State Health Services, Washington County Medical Director Robert Stark, Washington County Health Authority William Loesch, Durrenberger and other county commissioners, Faith Mission, Baylor Scott & White in Brenham, the local chamber of commerce, and Brenham Memorial Chapel and other funeral homes in the area.
Deramus gathered most of the group in one room along with several others on a conference call Wednesday to make sure everyone’s on the same page in their response to COVID-19.
“We do have a real disaster,” Deramus said of COVID-19. “It’s just a little invisible...This is probably the last time this group gets together for this big of a meeting.”
Deramus said at least 14 patients have been tested for the virus in Washington County, but no tests have come back positive yet.
“We will,” Deramus said of inevitable positive COVID-19 tests in Washington County. “My guess is we will certainly have a few positives come up. So, part of this is how do we handle that from here on out?”
Deramus wants local government and private organizations to realize between 30 and 50% of the area’s workforce could become ill based on 2017 World Health Organization planning assumptions modeled after the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Based on Washington County’s population, those assumptions estimated the total ill in Washington County at 9,000, the total outpatient care patients at 4,500, total hospitalizations at 990, total ICU care patients at 148, the number of patients on mechanical respiration at 75, and the total number dead at 190.
Though these estimates are not expected with COVID-19, Deramus said such a scenario would be hard for the area to cope with.
“You can see that would be overwhelming,” Deramus said. “…and these are just planning assumptions.”
Deramus recommended the city and county think about activating an emergency management center and a call center in response to COVID-19.
“There are some folks in and around Washington County who should be able to call a number to get the latest and greatest,” Deramus said.
Loesch said he’s still concerned Brenham’s finite medical infrastructure will be overrun.
“My number one concern will be what happens to our medical system here in Washington County,” Loesch said. “We’re a very small hospital. We don’t have a lot of resources. The good news is we are part of a much bigger organization, which will help. My other number one concern is also the safety of my family and of your families too. There are a lot of unknowns here. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Loesch said childcare has become an impediment to providing care for patients in Washington County.
“We have a lot of families who don’t have childcare,” Loesch said. “It’s making it hard for us to staff things at our clinics.”
Currently there’s a worldwide shortage of N95 masks whose filtration prevents many contagions from being breathed in by the user. Some nursing homes in the area have no such masks and very little personal protective equipment of any kind. Brenham’s Baylor Scott & White-The Brenham Clinic said they received a new shipment of such equipment.
“We just got another shipment in, so we are pretty well stocked at this point,” said Melissa McCune, administrator at Baylor Scott & White-The Brenham Clinic.
Deramus turned his attention to funeral homes in the area and asked how prepared they’d be for an large influx of deceased individuals. Their answer wasn’t one of confidence they can handle it.
“It could be overwhelming for us,” said Beverly Roehling, Brenham Memorial Oaks Chapel officer manager.
The funeral home officials said they’ve already begun advising families to limit graveside services to immediate family only.
The group’s attention then turned to Washington County officials, who said they have no plans to completely close the courthouse yet, but said county employees are wary of coming into contact with sick residents.
“We have some who are, quite frankly, very afraid,” said Durrenberger, who encouraged calm in order to prevent “a knee-jerk reaction” to COVID-19.
Fisher said the city has already picked out a rapid response team to handle the logistics for everything from sick individuals to Small Business Administration loans for ailing small businesses in Brenham.
“We’ve already created a response and recovery team,” Fisher said.
Fisher lamented some small businesses in the area for staying open, flaunting President Donald Trump’s recommendation to avoid gatherings of 10 or more people.
“The last thing we want to do is shut down any business, but these businesses have got to work with us,” Fisher said. “It’s frustrating when you find out the movie theater has tons of people in it.”
In a news release Thursday morning, the city said its disaster declaration allows it to take action if residents don’t stop social activities.
However, the county commissioners and Durrenberger stressed they will not be shutting down any businesses that do not abide by social distancing guidelines.
“This declaration does not shut down anyone’s business,” Durrenberger said. “Business as usual: we leave it up to our citizens. We are not in the business of shutting down businesses. The declaration is really here to stress to people that there is a concern...but take action on your own.”
Fuchs added that the main reason for declaring a state of disaster for funding from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“I know we need to declare a disaster for the FEMA money but we don’t need to go this far,” she said.
Commissioner Candice Bullock made a motion to table the discussion from further action, Fuchs seconded the motion.
“I don’t know where this (proclamation) came from, but it’s really crazy,” Fuchs said. “I think it’s wise for us to table this because this would devastate our people.”
The city of Brenham is singing a different tune, hoping this proclamation will give them the power to shut down businesses that are not adhering to the 10-person guideline.
“The city is mandating that all gatherings of more than 10 people be stopped immediately,” the Thursday release said. “If residents and businesses do not adhere to the city’s request and the CDC guidelines, the declaration gives the mayor authority to close them or take further action.”
Fisher said such shut downs are coming if businesses don’t act responsibly.
“We may have to if people don’t become wise,” Fisher said.
Fisher is working with county officials to ensure businesses survive COVID-19.
“We are talking to the county on a regular basis to make sure the county and city are in sync on a regular basis,” Fisher said.
Wende Ragonis, of the local chamber of commerce, said she’s been in touch with major grocers in the area to try and establish a senior happy hour of sorts so older residents can do their grocery shopping without “getting overrun by young people,” as one attendee put it.
Ragonis said two major grocers in Brenham were considering the senior hour while a third has already instituted such a time. She requested they not be named.
Ragonis said Brenham’s car dealerships have capitalized on COVID-19.
“Some of our car dealerships had record sales today before noon,” Ragonis said Wednesday.
For those residents who think they might be sick, Baylor Scott and White Director Nursing Jerry Webb said residents can download the My Baylor Scott & White Health app, find and fill out the COVID-19 questionnaire in order to secure a e-visit from a medical professional. At that point, a medical professional will determine if someone needs to be tested at a drive-through testing center at Baylor Scott & White’s U.S. 290 Clinic.
“If after the end of that visit they meet the criteria... we direct them to the 290 Clinic,” Webb said.
The end of Wednesday’s meeting saw plans for coordination between the county and city on a new call center for concerned residents.
“We’ve closed the library and aquatics center, but our employees are still working so we can redirect them,” Fisher said of the city’s ability to redirect employees to a potential call center.
“We can definitely coordinate that together,” said Commissioner Joy Fuchs. “…There are so many rumors out there and people need a place to get these rumors answered.”