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Gregg virus case up; Smith sets single-day sets record

East Texas counties watched their COVID-19 numbers go up precariously Thursday, and local officials lauded the steps the governor took to prepare hospitals in the state’s major cities for the fresh wave of virus cases hitting Texas.

Gregg County reported 14 new coronavirus diagnoses Thursday, while Smith County broke its record with 33 new cases for the day.

Of 25 counties in the East Texas region, 20 of those counties reported a total of 137 new cases.

County Health Administrator A.J. Harris said the new cases pushed Gregg County’s cumulative total to 334.

Harris said the county’s recovery total stood unchanged Thursday at 141, and the county’s death toll from the coronavirus was unchanged at 14.

He reported 3,043 total tests had been administered in the county as of Thursday, with 2,541 results returning negative and 168 results pending.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday morning that he is once again banning elective surgeries — but only in Dallas, Harris, Bexar and Travis counties — to preserve bed space for coronavirus patients in those heavily populated areas where health officials are seeing the greatest upswing of COVID-19 cases. Abbott also paused any further phases of reopening businesses in Texas.

Gregg County Health Authority Dr. Lewis Browne said he thought the governor made the correct move.

“I think he probably doesn’t need to open up anything more than he’s done, because we’ve had this surge,” Browne said. “Those areas are a very hard hit. I think it’s a right decision. The density of the population seems to be a very big risk factor for this big spread, which makes absolute sense.”

Longview Mayor Andy Mack said he didn’t see another choice for Abbott.

“I think he’s doing what he has to do, considering this virus is spreading at a rapid pace, and I don’t think he has any other option than to do what he’s doing,” Mack said. “I’m assuming he’s measuring critical levels as hospital availability, and he’s doing what he has to do based on hospital availability.”

Browne said the hospitals in Gregg County are not facing a shortage of space to care for COVID-19 patients.

“Our hospitals have more than enough coverage to take care of the numbers we’re getting, and it’s not putting a strain on our hospitals in Longview to keep operating the way they’re doing,” he said. “I think they’re being very responsible in testing before an elective surgery.”

In Smith County, one day after reaching its highest jump yet in COVID-19 cases, the county hit a new record when numbers shot up by 33 on Thursday.

The county’s cumulative count has reached 455, which includes 218 active cases, 232 recoveries and four deaths, according to the Northeast Texas Public Health District.

East Texas hot spot Titus County added 11 cases, pushing the county’s cumulative total to 763, County Judge Brian Lee reported Thursday morning on Facebook.

The county has recorded five deaths from the virus.

Lee said he expected to receive a report later in the day confirming more than 500 recoveries.

In Harrison County, County Judge Chad Sims reported three new cases, bumping his county’s cumulative total to 285.

The county has recorded 187 recoveries.

The Texas Department of State Health Services has reported 29 deaths for Harrison County.

“I urge all of us to continue to take this seriously so that our numbers do not continue to climb here in Harrison County,” Sims wrote Thursday in his daily Facebook update. “Masks, social distancing and keeping your hands clean will help prevent the spread.”

In Panola County, County Judge LeeAnn Jones reported four new cases of the virus, boosting her county’s cumulative total to 221.

The state health department on Thursday reported one additional death in Panola County, increasing its death toll to 25.

Across the 25-county East Texas region, at least 4,631 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed by Thursday evening, up 137 cases from 4,494 the day before. The death toll Thursday rose to 180, an increase of one from Wednesday.

— Longview News-Journal City Editor Belinda McCoy McLaughlin, Digital Editor Scott Brunner, Staff Writer Kristen Barton and the Tyler Morning Telegraph contributed to this report.

BETTER THAN EVER | Expansion puts Arbor Grace among elite facilities

Arbor Grace of Kilgore is nearly ready to open the 20,000 square foot extension to its current 26,000 square foot facility.

“We have completed the project,” said Jim Kale, Arbor Grace’s administrator. “We’re waiting on the remaining of the artwork. All the furniture is in, the painting is being finished up. We’re waiting on the drapery. In two weeks, we’re supposed to have our Life Safety Code inspection from the state of Texas. And that’s what we’re waiting on. Once they sign off, then we can open. So we’re ready.”

The $6.4 million expansion, located at 2700 South Henderson Boulevard, doesn’t have a date set for the grand opening, but Kale is hoping for one in August. Their number one priority is getting the inspection done, he said.

The expansion has a 100-seat dining room, 30 Medicare beds, a new therapy gym, administrative offices, and two courtyards. One is named after the Kilgore College Rangerettes, while the other is named after famous Kilgore pianist Van Cliburn.

“One thing is it has new equipment,” Kale said. “It has a beautiful setting, with brand new furniture. It’s going to have brand new flat screen TVs. It has 22 private rooms that have (22) private baths. That’s what makes it special. The rooms are set up like a home like environment, and then there are four semi-private rooms that will be used for maybe family members or a couple or siblings, or something like that.”

Arbor Grace is owned by Paramount Healthcare out of West Monroe, Louisiana. Paramount operates six nursing homes in Texas and eight in Louisiana. They purchased Arbor Grace in 2013, and the facility moved to its current location in November 2017. Before becoming Arbor Grace, it was Gregg Home for the Aged, which began in 1958.

“The company felt like Kilgore was a really good place to invest in this expansion, and Kilgore has been very supportive in helping the company with lots of things to get this project done,” Kale said.

Arbor Grace currently has 60 residents, and it is licensed for 97. Kale said they have applied for an additional 30 Medicare beds, so with the expansion they can potentially have up to 127 people.

“Our whole facility, you know, we have long term care,” he said. “We’re gonna have short-stay. Eventually we will have outpatient services. We take private pay, Medicare, and Medicaid. We do Medicaid pending on a case-by-case basis. We have excellent care, excellent customer service.”

Kale said they see a variety of patients.

“We have some patients that are Medicare,” he said. “They’ve come from the hospital, and they’re in our facility 20 to 100 days to recover from maybe an illness, a stroke, heart attack, broken hip, something like that, and then they go home. We also have patients, or we call them residents, that live full time. We call them long term.”

Since Gov. Abbott announced the lockdown in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Arbor Grace has been screening all employees and vendors that have to come into the facility.

Employees and anyone else who must enter, such as physicians, have their temperatures checked upon entry and every four hours.

Two patients tested positive as well as one employee, Kale said, and they followed CDC and CMS protocol, keeping a COVID unit until the residents tested negative and could return to their rooms.

Social activities have been challenging since the pandemic, but they’re doing what they can.

“Our residents can’t leave, they can’t visit with their families, however we do video chat, we do telephone conference with their family members,” Kale said. “We do Facetime, we do Zoom, we do Whatsapp. We use a lot of different technology to allow our residents to visit with their families.

“As far as activities, we continue to do bingo. We do what we call hall bingo. Our residents have to stay either in their room or there’ll come to their doorway, and we help them set up with bingo, and we’ll call bingo over the intercom. We do that lots of times, and we have lots of activities that vary. We do have porch time where we take our residents out on the back deck and we allow them to get fresh air and sunshine, but they have to remain six feet apart.”

Kale is ecstatic about the expansion and said that the residents are excited too.

“I think it brings a sense of newness, because it makes them feel like they’re special too, and so as soon as we get the new part open, we’re going to start working on refurbishing the older part of the building, which, fresh paint, new bathrooms, those types of things,” he said. “Whenever you have something new like that, it just makes you feel better.”

It also brings benefit to the Kilgore community at large.

“I think the community is really excited about our expansion project because not only is it going to boost our community and our economy, it’s going to open up some new relationships that we need,” Kale said. “It’s gonna create some just awesome opportunities for us to blend and to bind together with other parts and healthcare partners in our community. It’s gonna be awesome.”

City announces annual July 4th extravaganza
Kilgore plans Fourth extravaganza

Fireworks, food, fun. And fireworks.

Did we mention fireworks?

The city of Kilgore is planning its annual Fourth of July Extravaganza for next Saturday, July 4, with new safety regulations in place.

City Manager Josh Selleck, along with members of Kilgore’s Main Street team, said that this year’s event will be different due to safety regulations to protect the community from the spread of COVID-19.

“It is important, and I believe we can do it safely,” Selleck said. “We have, in earlier years, called ourselves the most patriotic town in Texas and it is important for the Kilgore community to come together to celebrate their patriotism.”

Due to numbers of the virus beginning to rise again across the state, Governor Greg Abbott announced this week that gatherings over 100 people must be approved by the mayor, along with other regulations to help reduce virus infections.

Selleck said that the organizing committee already spoke with Mayor Ronnie Spradlin and received his approval with the changes made to the event.

One of the largest differences to this year’s event, according to Selleck, is that there will not be a band performing live music during the event. Instead, Selleck said that patriotic music will be playing at the park throughout.

Vendors will still be available for community members to buy from, offering a “drive thru” experience where community members can drive up with their cars, and then get out to order and pay.

Social distancing markers will also be placed in the park, and Selleck said community members are encouraged to bring their own masks to wear. Though, some masks will be available to community members who need them.

Selleck said that community members are also being encouraged to set up tailgating areas outside of the park to avoid overcrowding. He said that local businesses have enthusiastically agreed to allow community members to set up in surrounding parking lots to watch the fireworks show.

Businesses include Brookshire, First Baptist Kilgore, Rader Funeral Home and of course, Kilgore’s city hall. Various locations around the downtown area would also work, through Selleck said that the community should be aware of their sight line to be sure they can still see fireworks.

The fireworks will be set off after dark, around 9:15 p.m. on North Street by Las Tejanitas.

“We ask the community to be respectful of the businesses offering their parking lots by not leaving trash and avoiding damaging property,” Selleck said.

For more information on the upcoming event go to www.kilgoremainstreet.com/fourth-of-july-extravaganza.

Gov. Abbott slows down re-opening, adds limits
Abbott slows down re-opening, adds limits

It looks like the COVID-19 virus is forcing state officials to go back into more of a precaution mode.

After being one of the nation’s leading states in opening back up following a near three-month shut-down, Gov. Greg Abbott instructed bar owners across the state to close and a scaled-back plan for restaurants Friday, even though numbers here in East Texas aren’t nearly the numbers, of course, that are in most of the state’s metropolitan areas.

“It is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” Gov. Abbott said Friday, according to the Associated Press. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health.”

Also according to the AP report, In addition to scaling back restaurant capacity, Abbott shut down rafting operations and said any outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people will need approval from the local government. The move came as the number of patients at Texas hospitals statewide more than doubled in two weeks.

Texas reported more than 17,000 confirmed new cases in the past three days, with a record high of nearly 6,000 on Thursday. The day’s tally of over 4,700 hospitalizations was also a record.

Abbott joined the small but growing number of governors either backtracking or putting any further re-openings on hold.

The number of confirmed cases in the U.S. per day soared past the previous high of 36,400, set on April 24, during one of the deadliest stretches in the crisis so far, according to the count kept by Johns Hopkins University. The average number of new cases per day has risen about 60 percent over the past two weeks, according to an Associated Press analysis.

As of this writing on Friday afternoon, the virus is blamed for 124,000 deaths in the U.S. and 2.4 million confirmed infections nationwide, by Johns Hopkins’ count. Worldwide, the virus has claimed close to a half-million lives, according to Johns Hopkins.