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Active COVID cases surge past 400

Nacogdoches County ended July with 412 active cases of the coronavirus, as 59 new cases were announced on Friday, including more than 20 connected to the Nacgodoches County jail.

Friday’s new cases included 21 cases from the jail, which experienced an outbreak during the past week that has been traced to two inmates booked in mid-July.

“The state did test the jail several weeks back, but this is an ever-evolving and ever-changing situation,” County Emergency Management spokeswoman Amy Mehaffey said during a conference call with community leaders this week.

Including Friday’s cases, 64 inmates and jail staff have tested positive since last weekend. At least five of those cases are jail staff. Other cases released this week do not differentiate between staff and inmates.

County Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously voted to apply for $1.6 million in federal relief funding to help battle the spread of virus. The grant would include $320,000 of immediate cash for expenses incurred by the county such as protective equipment and testing.

“This is a very timely in the situation we have in the jail right now,” County Judge Greg Sowell said.

Administered through the Texas Department of Emergency Management, grants also cover overtime and hazard pay and emergency sick leave for county employees.

Active cases, or patients testing positive and still contagious, increased by 339 during July, compared to 73 active cases one month ago. Of the current active cases, 31 were hospitalized as of Friday, with 10 of those in intensive care.

Since testing began in Nacogdoches County in March, 997 cases have been confirmed. Thirty-two patients have died and an estimated 553 have recovered.

The mortality rate as of Friday afternoon stood at 3.2% here. The rate is the percentage of confirmed cases resulting in a death. The true infection and mortality rate is unknown because the virus can be carried by people who do not exhibit symptoms.

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, was diagnosed with the virus earlier this week but said he has not shown symptoms.

A local call center also remains open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday at 936-468-4787 for those with flu-like symptoms.

Gohmert has virus; Capitol issues broad mask requirements

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, tested positive for the coronavirus Tuesday, the day after he had an unmasked interaction with U.S. Attorney General William Barr, spurring the Capitol to issue broad new mask requirements Wednesday.

The 66-year-old lawmaker failed the pre-screening required to come into contact with the president, he said in a video message to constituents. He had been set to fly to West Texas for a rally with President Donald Trump on Tuesday.

“I went to the White House today and before you go in they test you with the quick test,” Gohmert said. “It tested positive, but they get false positives sometimes. They tested me with the swab that goes way up into your sinuses, and it finally came back. It was positive too.”

Gohmert told Fox News that he would take the controversial hydroxychloroquine to treat the virus.

“My doctor and I are all in,” Gohmert told Sean Hannity on Wednesday evening, adding that he will start the regimen in the “next day or two.”

Hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, has been touted by Trump as a possible cure for COVID-19, despite research that has shown the drug is not effective in treating the virus.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration withdrew its emergency-use authorization for the drug, warning against the use of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine for COVID-19 outside of the hospital setting or a clinical trial because of the risk of heart rhythm problems. The drug and its more toxic variant, chloroquine, can also cause blindness and liver failure.

And Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s top infectious disease experts, agreed with the FDA’s decision Wednesday, one day after Trump said he still thinks the drug can treat COVID-19.

“The overwhelming prevailing clinical trials that have looked at the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine have indicated that it is not effective in (treating the) coronavirus disease,” Fauci said.

FDA head Dr. Stephen Hahn has said the drug is ineffective and can cause heart problems and other issues and lamented that the experimental treatment had become “politicized.”

“The president has been very clear about this: It might work. It might not work,” the Trump appointee told ABC News. “We have to have the data to figure this out. That’s what happened … as we collected that data. We saw the data.”

Barr tested negative for the virus on Wednesday, but health guidelines warn that being tested too soon after exposure can led to a false-negative.

Gohmert, who has has been seen walking around the Capitol without a face covering, told CNN last month that he did not wear a mask because he was being tested regularly for the virus.

“I don’t have the coronavirus, turns out as of yesterday I’ve never had it. But if I get it, you’ll never see me without a mask,” he told CNN in June.

Gohmert increasingly has been photographed wearing a mask or bandana on the House floor and said Wednesday he had been regularly using face coverings recently.

“I’ve worn a mask more the last week or two than I’ve worn a mask in the last two months,” Gohmert said.

On Tuesday, Gohmert attended a House Judiciary Committee with Barr and top lawmakers.

“I wore a mask most of the time especially around folks,” he told KETK-TV. “Except for when I was speaking I had a mask on.”

Video circulating on social media shows Barr and Gohmert walking side by side without masks. The Hill reporter Olivia Beavers said Gohmert waited for Barr outside the restroom and the two exchanged comments before returning to the hearing.

“Would say from memory, they were within arms length,” Beavers tweeted before providing cellphone video.

Democrat Hank Gilbert, also of Tyler, said Gohmert lied about wearing a mask around other people after viewing the video of his Republican opponent and Barr together.

“I’m truly sorry that Louie Gohmert contracted COVID-19. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, and I know that the people of his district will join me in sending Louie their thoughts and prayers — sincerely — for a full recovery,” Gilbert said. “However, the fact that he still will not support the mask mandate of our own governor is truly disturbing.”

Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., chastised several GOP lawmakers for taking off their masks during the hearing, though Gohmert, who is not a stranger to clashes with Nadler, was not among those called out by name. Gohmert said he wore a mask during the hearing, and photographs show a mask on the table in front of him while he was publicly questioning Barr.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday chided Gohmert for not always wearing a mask in the Capitol.

“I’m so sorry for him. But I’m also sorry my members are concerned because he has been showing up at meetings without a mask and making a thing of it. Hopefully now he will look after his health, and others,” Pelosi told reporters.

Pelosi and Capitol officials issued broad new mask requirements Wednesday after Gohmert tested positive.

Pelosi announced Wednesday evening that all members will be required to wear a mask when voting on the House floor and that one will be provided if anyone forgets. Several hours later, the House sergeant-at-arms and the Capitol’s top physician issued an order requiring masks inside House office buildings, with few exceptions. That mandate went into effect Thursday.

Gohmert’s positive test raised further questions about the lack of mask and testing requirements in the Capitol as members frequently fly back-and-forth from their hometowns and gather for votes, hearings and news conferences.

Several GOP senators said they were pushing for more regular testing in the Capitol, as there is currently no testing program or requirements.

“I think particularly for members of Congress who are going back-and-forth, they represent sort of the perfect petri dish for how you spread a disease,” said GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, chair of the Senate Rules Committee. “You send 535 people out to 535 different locations, on about 1,000 different airplanes, and bring them back and see what happens.”

Gohmert also voted on the House floor Tuesday and attended a House Natural Resources Committee hearing, where a staff member sat close behind him on the dais as he talked without a mask. The chair of that committee, Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, said he would self-quarantine.

“In the meantime, my work schedule and the lives of my employees are disrupted,” Grijalva said. “This stems from a selfish act by Mr. Gohmert, who is just one member of Congress.”

When Gohmert flew to Washington on Sunday, he sat next to Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, who also went into quarantine after learning of her colleague’s test results. A third lawmaker, Republican Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, said he was advised to quarantine after having dinner with Gohmert on Monday.

Mask wearing had been strongly encouraged but not enforced for lawmakers in the Capitol, while other workers and law enforcement officers were required to wear masks. Committees had rules requiring face coverings in hearing rooms, but until now, they hadn’t been required in hallways or personal offices.

In a letter late Wednesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., wrote to the House Office of Employee Assistance and, citing Gohmert’s positive test, asked if officials there had “sufficient resources to meet the greater demand for staff counseling created by these incidents.” He asked that the office take additional measures to publicize its services.

Most senators had worn masks, but a few had refused, including Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a doctor who says it’s unnecessary because he previously tested positive for the virus. There is no proven science saying that a person cannot get the virus again.

Gohmert suggested that he might have contracted the virus by wearing a mask. He later clarified that he felt he may have spread the virus from his hands to his mask while adjusting it. Medical experts say masks are one of the best ways to prevent transmission of the virus, which is thought to mainly spread through people who are in close contact.

Multiple GOP senators said Wednesday they were pushing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to allow expanded testing. McConnell and Pelosi jointly rejected Trump’s offer for rapid testing for lawmakers in May, saying they wanted instead to direct resources to front-line workers.

Blunt said he believes that lawmakers should be tested every time they travel and that staff and others should be tested occasionally. He said McConnell and the Capitol physician would have to be on board for that to happen, and he doesn’t know why it hasn’t.

Gohmert drew attention in March after he returned to the Capitol despite potential exposure to the virus at the Conservative Political Action Conference. He said at the time he had been cleared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resume business in Washington. Other lawmakers who attended the conference, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, opted to self-quarantine.

At least 10 other members of Congress have tested positive for the respiratory virus

Gohmert supporters who clashed with activists at a Protest Portland Rally in Tyler on Sunday were photographed not wearing masks and not following social distancing protocols set forth by state and federal officials.

The Tyler Republican will face Gilbert, the organizer of the Portland protest, on the November ballot.

Nicole Cobler of the Austin American-Statesman and Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Mary Clarke Jalonick, Michael Balsamo and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.

City expected to ban smoking at parks

A smoking ban in city playgrounds and park pavilions is up for discussion by the Nacogdoches City Council on Tuesday.

The council will hold a videoconference meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Meetings are streamed live at Members of the public who want to comment on agenda items are asked to call or email the city secretary’s office before noon Tuesday, at (936)-559-2506 or

A citywide smoking ban enacted in 2008 prohibits lighting up in businesses or within 20 feet of public entrances but didn’t cover public outdoor areas such as parks. After complaints, smoking within the city’s baseball complex was banned in 2016. Softball and soccer complexes were added last year.

Citing secondhand smoke and cigarette litter as problematic in areas where youngsters play, the Healthy Nacogdoches Coalition brought a request for a playground and pavilions smoking ban to the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board in February.

The Parks Board approved the proposal June 4 and forwarded its unanimous recommendation to the city manager’s office for final approval per city requirements. In addition, Community Services Director Brian Bray asked Healthy Nacogdoches to bring the proposal to city council.

While it is not an item that would typically require council approval, Bray said, city staff wanted to give council members an opportunity to comment or request changes before finalizing.

As proposed, the ban creates a 20-foot buffer from each pavilion and playground.

“Our ordinance doesn’t allow us to designate smoking areas, only non-smoking areas,” Bray said. “We designate smoking areas by default.”

Also on Tuesday’s agenda, the council will:

Consider a contract with L.S. Equipment Co. Inc. for just under $1.2 million in street paving work for improvements to 10 city streets and several segments of road in Sunset Cemetery.

Hear reports on and possibly approve the city’s partially self funded health insurance as well as a change from fully funded dental to a self funded plan.

Hear a report on the pandemic’s financial impact on the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

Set public hearing dates for the city’s upcoming fiscal budget and tax rate.

Got a crappy septic system? Grant program brings relief

It takes some paperwork, but some rural East Texas homeowners can get out of a crappy, and potentially toxic, situation with their septic systems.

Coordinating a grant-funded program to replace failing septic systems in the area known as the Attoyac Bayou Watershed, Emily Monroe of Texas A&M’s Texas Water Resources Institute said she’s come across homes that had no wastewater treatment system at all.

“Only a pipe coming from the home that emptied out onto their property somewhere, sometimes directly into a creek,” said Monroe, an extension program specialist who helps develop and execute plans to restore and protect water resources.

In many cases, a septic system isn’t working properly.

“Then any waste flushed from the house can run off into a nearby water body during the next rainstorm,” she said.

From grant applications to inspecting finished systems, a collaborative of area organizations since 2015 has replaced or repaired 50 home systems in the watershed, with funding coming through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency. The end goal is lowering bacteria levels that have been described by the state as elevated for the past 20 years.

The area in question is about 300,000 acres that drain into the Attoyac Bayou, encompassing the eastern part of Nacogdoches County, western section of Shelby County and small portions of San Augustine and Rusk counties.

“We’ve done more in Nacogdoches County than any of the others,” said Ken Awtrey, coordinator for the Pineywoods Regional Community Development, a nonprofit that handles bidding and contracting work for the program. “Some of them have bad problems that need to be fixed — it can be a health problem for the residents.”

Replacing a septic system runs about $6,500 on average. Applications are open to anyone who lives within the watershed who suspects their system may be faulty. Symptoms of a failing septic system include gurgling toilets, backed-up or slow drains, damp spots on lawns during dry weather, smelling sewage and isolated areas of lush grass.

Approximately 6,000 residential septic systems are in the watershed, according to a 2014 Attoyac Bayou Watershed Protection Plan, which estimated about half of those may not be functioning properly. This estimate is based primarily on the majority of homes being built before the state required permits for on-site sewer systems.

“We get about five (projects) at a time and put those out for bid,” Awtrey says. “Then we go from there until we run out of money.”

Five systems are being completed this summer, Monroe says, with another 10 scheduled for later in the year.

“(On-site sewage facilities) can be expensive to repair, replace or install, but it’s very important for human health and safety to manage and treat wastewater,” she said.

Paying for the projects is an ongoing cycle of applying for and securing grants. Nacogdoches County Commissioners this week unanimously agreed to terms of the most recent one, which requires a match from the county in the form of a county-paid employee to provide technical support. The requirement is a first, but something county staff say has been happening all along.

“It’s a little extra work we normally don’t do, which is to keep a log of when I leave the office working on one of these (projects) and when I return,” said the county’s Environmental Services Director Tommy Wheeler.

“Over the past several years not counting this year, our citizens — not our county but citizens within our county — have received a total of $88,000 in funds like this for the installation and repair of on-site systems in the Attoyac region,” he told commissioners on Tuesday. “This particular grant will bring in right at $36,000 by us doing this.”

Applications for this program are available from the Pineywoods Resource Conservation and Development online at or by calling (936)-568-0414.

Memorial settles tech debt

Nacogdoches Memorial Hospital in its latest step to manage its debts exited a contract with Cerner for a long-delayed information technology system.

The debt from the Cerner contract totaled around $20 million and was “one of the largest if not the largest” obligations for the hospital, said attorney Deborah Williamson of debt reorganization firm Dykema.

The hospital settled the debt for $2.07 million with a $1.01 million termination fee, she said. The money was to be wired to Cerner on Wednesday.

“I think we’re in a position much better than what we have been in years,” hospital CEO Gary Stokes said.

The hospital extended its existing contract with Cerner for Soarian, a clinical workflow software system, which hospital officials say they are pleased with.

Williamson said she had been trying to negotiate with Cerner for months, though the health technology giant ignored her requests.

“Cerner wouldn’t talk to us for the longest time. They kept waiting to see who our partner was going to be,” Williamson said.

Memorial Hospital in April exited a contract with Juniper Advisory, the firm hired in July 2019 to strike a partnership deal. Hospital officials have made no public statement on whether they will continue to seek a partnership or operate as an independent agency.

Completing Cerner’s information technology system for medical records management was put off by the hospital on several occasions, the last of which delayed installation of the system until this year or beyond. The contract dates back to the time when Scott Street was hospital CEO.

Street abruptly exited in 2017.

Money to be used in the initiation was put into an escrow account, and the hospital had been making monthly payments to the company despite never following through with the multi-million dollar project.