As escalating coronavirus cases spurred Gov. Greg Abbott to once again close Texas bars and scale back other businesses on Friday, East Texas counties continued to see their numbers creep upward — except for Smith County.
With 44 new diagnoses for Friday, Gregg County's neighbor to the west reported its third day in a row of reaching a record one-day total of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
The new cases took Smith County's cumulative total up to 499 as of Friday, according to the Northeast Texas Public Health District.
In a joint statement, Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran, Tyler Mayor Martin Heines and NET Health CEO George Roberts strongly encouraged residents and visitors to wear face coverings when in public settings while social distancing is not possible.
"Ultimately, it is the individual responsibility of each person to protect themselves, their families and others in our community," the joint statement read. "Best practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19 include hand-washing for at least 20 seconds, maintaining at least 6 feet of distance between yourself and others in public, utilizing hand sanitizer when needed, staying home when sick and wearing a face covering in public when social distancing is not possible."
The statement came after the NET Health board of directors voted Thursday to recommend that city of Tyler and Smith County officials issue orders requiring people to wear masks while in public.
Under Abbott's order Friday, people are recommended to wear face coverings, but no jurisdiction can penalize a person criminally or civilly for failure to wear a face covering.
"This makes enforcement of mandated mask-wearing effectively impossible at the local level," the statement from Smith County's joint information center said.
Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt and Longview Mayor Andy Mack have said they are not interested in issuing local orders for businesses to require masks — an option Abbott previously has offered while declining to order local governments to mandate the wearing of face coverings. Stoudt and Mack said such orders are not enforceable.
In Gregg County, six new cases of COVID-19 were reported Friday, boosting the county's cumulative total to 340, County Health Administrator A.J. Harris said.
The new patients included three people in one family — a mother and her two young children, said County Health Authority Dr. Lewis Browne.
The county recorded three new recoveries Friday, pushing the total number of recoveries to 144, Harris cited.
Recoveries are logged when patients have a follow-up negative COVID-19 test or when Gregg County Health Department staff members can verify that COVID-19 patients are 14 days past diagnosis and have not had symptoms for three days after that, Browne has said. The health department sometimes has difficulty getting people to respond to phone calls checking on their status, he has explained.
He described how experiences with COVID-19 patients in Gregg County have led to questions about how people develop immunity to the virus. The county has seen six COVID-19 patients who were cleared by negative tests and who have then contracted the illness again.
"We're still kind of leery about how well you get immune to this ...," he said.
He said he believes the patients recovered and then were reinfected by someone else.
"You certainly don't have immunity within the first two months (after recovering)," he said. "I can pretty well say that, to me, has been proven in Gregg County."
Harris reported 3,093 total tests had been administered in the county as of Friday, with 2,581 results returning negative and 172 results pending. The county has recorded 14 deaths from the coronavirus.
In Titus County, County Judge Brian Lee on Friday reported 24 new cases for his county for Thursday and Friday, shooting its cumulative total up to 787.
"Unfortunately we’ve seen a significant increase this week," Lee wrote Friday evening on Facebook. "We believe it’s time to regroup and slow this down before it gets out of hand. More tomorrow ..."
Titus Regional Medical Center on Friday reported it was treating four patients for COVID-19. Titus County has recorded five deaths from the coronavirus.
Back in Smith County, 75 recoveries were announced Friday, increasing that total to 293, NET Health said.
Smith County now has 202 active cases, and it has recorded four deaths from the coronavirus.
Tyler hospitals on Friday were treating 55 East Texas patients for COVID-19, up five from Thursday.
Since June 1, Smith County has had 289 new coronavirus cases diagnosed, NET Health numbers show.
With three more days to go in the month, June so far accounts for 57.92% of the total cases in the county. Numbers reported since Monday, which include the weekend, account for 169 of the 289 cases.
In Harrison County, County Judge Chad Sims reported three new cases of the coronavirus, raising his county's cumulative total to 288.
The county's deaths have increased by one to now total 30. Sims also reported 10 new recoveries Friday, bringing that total up to 197. The county has 61 active cases.
Across the 25-county East Texas region, at least 4,752 cases of COVID-19 had been diagnosed by Friday evening, up from 4,631 the day before. The death toll Friday rose to 183, an increase of three from Thursday.