Sep 17, 2020
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott COVID-19 Press Conference Transcript September 17
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference on September 17 to provide coronavirus updates. He said that restaurants, stores, and other businesses can increase capacity to 75%, but bars are to remain closed for the near future. Read the transcript of the full COVID-19 news briefing here.
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Governor Greg Abbott: (13:37)
Thank you all for joining with us here today. Since late July, the spread of COVID-19 has steadily and significantly declined. The number of new cases and new hospitalizations have been cut by more than two thirds. Just yesterday, we had the lowest number of hospitalizations in the past three months. And importantly, the number of people recovering from COVID continues to skyrocket.
Governor Greg Abbott: (14:10)
Doctors have explained that the biggest reason for these improvements is because Texans are taking COVID seriously. People are following the CDC standards, social distancing, sanitizing their hands, and wearing masks when around others. Those safe practices remain the best defense against COVID until vaccines arrived in the coming months.
Governor Greg Abbott: (14:37)
These practices are particularly important now that students are returning to schools and colleges, now that fans are returning to sporting events, and now that flu season is upon us. Personal vigilance is the best way to keep down the number of COVID cases, the number of hospitalizations, and the number of fatalities.
Governor Greg Abbott: (15:03)
Now, while we go about protecting Texans from COVID, we must also be mindful of those who are suffering from the pandemic in other ways, people who are enduring family hardships and unprecedented financial challenges. But now, with the medical advancements that we have made and the personal hygiene practices that we have adopted, Texans have shown that we can address both the health and safety concerns of COVID, while also taking careful and measured steps to restore the livelihoods that Texans desperately need.
Governor Greg Abbott: (15:41)
Achieving both goals requires a framework that establishes safe standards that contain COVID, that emphasize protecting the most vulnerable, and that establish a clear metric that the public can depend upon.
Governor Greg Abbott: (15:58)
First, let me mention the safe standards. Until additional medical treatments are available, we must continue the safe practices that slowed the spread this summer. That includes staying at home if you’re sick, sanitizing your hands, maintaining safe distances, and wearing a mask. Those personal behaviors will continue to slow the spread while opening schools and while adding jobs.
Governor Greg Abbott: (16:25)
Safety will also be enhanced with a massive increase in testing. Texas is scheduled to receive millions of these 15 minute tests per month. That will help Texans know immediately if they have COVID.
Governor Greg Abbott: (16:42)
We can also reduce fatalities by remaining focused on protecting the most vulnerable. Most deaths are people over 70. Half of those are people over 80. We can save more lives by continuing to shield our seniors from exposure to COVID.
Governor Greg Abbott: (17:02)
Now, to determine if we are progressing on the right path or if we need a course correction, we need a fair and reliable metric. From the very beginning of this pandemic, doctors have said that COVID must be slowed to ensure that our hospital capacity is not overrun like what was seen in Italy and places like New York, as well as other places. Hospitalizations is the most important information about the severity of COVID in any particular region. It is also the most accurate information available on a daily basis.
Governor Greg Abbott: (17:38)
Remember that no doctor has ever suggested that the goal is to eradicate 100% of COVID cases. That is impossible, even after vaccines become available. The goal has always been to contain the disease, to limit its harm, and to maximize the healthcare system’s ability to treat both COVID patients, as well as other medical needs of the community.
Governor Greg Abbott: (18:05)
So the way this works is this, when COVID hospitalizations are high, it means that the spread of COVID is excessive in a particular region and that corrective action is needed. When hospitalizations are low, it means that COVID is better contained in that region and that businesses can reopen. This metric is particularly effective because it distinguishes the severity of COVID between one region of Texas from others.
Governor Greg Abbott: (18:33)
The fact is that not all parts of Texas are impacted the same by COVID. A high level of spread IN one part of the state may be completely irrelevant to the COVID condition in another part of the state 500 miles away. An easy example shows why. Amarillo is closer to Kansas and Colorado than it is to Dallas and Houston. It would be more affected by the COVID condition in those states than in other regions in Texas. As a result, the severity of COVID in one region of Texas should not dictate the business practices in some far distant region of the state.
Governor Greg Abbott: (19:15)
So moving forward, we will continue to consider all of the relevant factors for additional business openings, or for if course correction is needed, but we will rely most heavily on hospitalizations of COVID patients in the 22 hospital regions in Texas.
Governor Greg Abbott: (19:37)
Doctors and hospitals suggest that it can be a warning if more than 15% of hospitalizations are people with COVID. Hospitalizations above that level signal a serious spread and begins to compromise a hospital’s ability to respond to COVID.
Governor Greg Abbott: (19:55)
More specifically, if the COVID hospitalizations are less than 15% of all hospitalizations for seven consecutive days, then the region is safe enough to allow additional openings. On the other hand, if COVID hospitalizations rise above 15% for seven consecutive days, then course correction is going to be needed. That correction would likely mean that it would require a reduction in the extent to which a region is able to open.
Governor Greg Abbott: (20:26)
So to explain how this works, we present this chart to you. This chart shows the 22 hospital regions in Texas. If you look on the left column, it shows the 22 hospital regions across the state. The middle column shows the peak percentage of hospitalizations of people with COVID in each region. You’ll see that 20 of the 22 regions peaked above that 15% metric. In five regions, more than half of the people hospitalized were hospitalized with COVID. The right column shows the status today, and you can see how remarkably we’ve been able to contain the hospitalizations in so many regions across the state.
Governor Greg Abbott: (21:13)
But even with hospitalizations plummeting, three regions remain in the danger zone. One is the Rio Grande Valley, another is Laredo, and the third is Victoria. At this time, that level of COVID hospitalizations shows that COVID is still spreading too much for those regions to be able to expand their openings. So we will continue to work with those regions to help them better contain their COVID spread and as well as to help them lower their hospitalization rates.
Governor Greg Abbott: (21:47)
The other 19 regions are able to open at the expanded capacity announced today. However, before going over the new standards, let me make two quick points. First, for months now, most businesses have been able to open at a 50% capacity, actually some with no capacity limits whatsoever. The extent to which Texas has been open is reflected in the plummeting unemployment rate. At the end of April, it had soared to almost 13%. By now, that number has been cut almost in half. During that time period, more than half a million jobs were added. So substantial improvement for the Texas economy and for individual pocket books is already underway.
Governor Greg Abbott: (22:42)
The second point is that there are some Texans who want to fully open Texas a hundred percent as if COVID no longer is a threat. The fact is COVID does still exist and most Texans remain susceptible. If we fully reopened Texas without limits, without safe practices, it could lead to an unsustainable increase in COVID that would require the possibility of being forced to ratchet back down. The better approach is to safely take strategic steps that help Texans return to jobs, while also protecting them from COVID. And that is what we are announcing today.
Governor Greg Abbott: (23:23)
For the 19 hospital regions where COVID hospitalizations are less than 15% of all hospitalizations, the following business categories that currently have a 50% capacity can increase to a 75% capacity. That includes all retail stores, all restaurants, all office buildings, all manufacturing, all museums and libraries, and all gyms. Those openings can begin as early as Monday, September the 21st. Also, effective immediately, hospitals in those regions can return to ordinary elective surgical procedures.
Governor Greg Abbott: (24:02)
Can return to ordinary elective surgical procedures. And additionally, all nursing home facilities, assisted living centers, state-supported living centers, and other longterm care facilities, are allowed to reopen for visitation. They must, however, comply with certain health protocols and there must be no COVID outbreak at those facilities. All of those facilities are now allowed to offer essential caregiver visits. To give these facilities the time they need to prepare for the additional visitations to begin, they will be allowed to open up next week, September the 24th. Because bars are nationally recognized as COVID-spreading locations, they are still not able to open at this time. However, it is important for them to know that we are focused on finding ways to get them open. We need to see COVID numbers continue to be contained, and we need to work with the bars on effective strategies that will ensure that when they do open, the possibility of spread of COVID is contained. Some bars and their associations have offered some very helpful ideas, and we will continue to work with them on that process.
Governor Greg Abbott: (25:23)
Let me end with this. Without vaccines available, containing COVID is a challenge, but Texans have already shown that they are up to that challenge. The reality is that COVID hasn’t suddenly disappeared in Texas. It’s still here and it’s still a threat, but we are now armed with the personal safety standards and some medical advancements that can ensure that we can continue to tame COVID until more treatments and vaccines become available. So as we go about the process of continuing to contain COVID, we will also continue to work to open up Texas. Now, I’ll hand it over to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.
Dan Patrick: (26:12)
Thank you, Governor. I know this is welcome news to everyone watching and all of the business owners out there. And I want to thank the people of Texas for giving us this opportunity to be here today, because the reason the hospitalizations are down is because Texans are respecting other Texans. I think we’re really looking out for each other and doing the best we can so the virus, which is still contagious, is not spreading as it once was. So Texans, you’re the reason that we’re at this point today, the best point we have been in through this entire time, quite frankly. And to continue to open and continue to maintain the status, as the governor said, we seriously have to remind ourselves the virus is still out there and we still have to be smart about what we’re doing and look out for our fellow Texans.
Dan Patrick: (27:05)
I want to thank the nurses and the doctors, the companies that have come up with this new testing. I mean, think about this. Back in early March, we were testing a couple hundred a week, and it took three days or longer to get the test back, and now we’re going to have millions of quick test, which will make everyone feel more comfortable. I know I’ve been traveling a lot. I’ve been tested a lot. And when I’m with a group of people who have been tested and you know they have an arm band or you know that they’re safe, it allows you to be as normal as can possibly be in these time. And so I think that’s going to give people a much better sense of comfort, that they are in a secure environment. The treatments that we now have are a big part of… This is the other factor besides the people of Texas working together. The doctors and the nurses and what they’ve learned over this time, it’s really been remarkable.
Dan Patrick: (28:01)
And I know this has been a long ordeal for all of us, and we still have a ways to go. And we don’t know where that end is when the vaccine comes, but it’s remarkable what our healthcare system has done in treating patients compared to where we were in March when it was a lot of unknown. So I really thank them. And as I always say, because I always make this pitch, Governor, if there’s one group of people that I think are the superheroes in addition to our doctors and our nurses and our police and our fire, all those people who have never taken a day off, are those grocery folks that have been working almost at 100%, quite frankly, from day one. And they never blinked, and they put themselves at risk, and I thank all of you. If you’re a checker, if you’re a stocker, I used to do that as a kid. It was hard work. Thank you, because you kept us going when almost everyone else was closed down. So thank you, Texans, what you’ve done. Thank you, Governor. I think this is a great step, and let’s just continue to work together so Texas can lead the nation in reopening our state. Thank you.
Governor Greg Abbott: (29:05)
Very good, thank you. Speaker Bonnen.
Dennis Bonnen: (29:07)
Thank you, Governor. Thank you, Lieutenant Governor. We’re here today because Texans made the decision to care about each other. And not simply care about each other’s health and wellbeing with the virus, but Texans’ economic health and wellbeing. Governor Abbott has shown great leadership by doing things that are required in times like this. And that is making hard choices, but listening to the experts, listening to the medical experts in making choices based on science and fact. And today, we’re able to open even more of Texas than was already open, but we have to remember our kids are back in school. We’re enjoying more of a normal life, and that is because we have shown respect for each other. We follow the guidelines. We wear face coverings in public. We wash our hands regularly. We worry about each other’s wellbeing. And when we do that, we succeed.
Dennis Bonnen: (30:02)
Today is a great day, because we’re taking another major step to more freedom and openness in Texas. We’re experiencing the things that make us happy, and we have proven that we can experience all of that when we simply do minor things like everyone in this room is doing, wearing a face covering, washing hands, social distance when possible. If we continue to do those things, we will continue to see Texans be healthy, and we will continue to see Texas be prosperous economically. Thank you for your leadership, Governor.
Governor Greg Abbott: (30:35)
Thank you very much. Now, Dr. Hellerstedt, the commissioner of DSHS.
Dr. Hellerstedt: (30:43)
Thank you. Governor. I’m John Hellerstedt, and I am a pediatrician and I am the commissioner for the Texas Department of State Health Services. And as a public health physician, I have three priorities. Number one, prevention, number two, prevention, number three, prevention. And that’s extremely important to understand. The success that we have enjoyed so far is because we are taking the steps that are necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. We should learn a lot from this. The thing that the summer taught us was the risk, the danger, the devastation, the destruction, the loss of life that COVID-19 can cause. I lost a very close personal friend to COVID-19.
Dr. Hellerstedt: (31:29)
So we know that the threat is real, but we also know that the things that we have undertaken in the last several months worked. There’s no better proof than that, and no one should ever have any doubt anymore as to whether or not these things are effective. They are effective. They worked in the second most populous state in the country, and they work in a very effective way. And so the plan that the governor and other leaders have outlined today is going to work when we continue to remember prevention, prevention, prevention. We have done it. We are capable of doing it. We’re up to this task, and let’s not forget that, and let’s stay the course. Thank you.
Governor Greg Abbott: (32:10)
Thank you, Dr. Now, Dr. Zerwas, the vice executive vice chancellor for public health at the University of Texas System.
Dr. Zerwas: (32:18)
Thank you, Governor, and I want to thank all the leadership here in Texas for the incredible job that y’all have done to guide us to this point. When you first brought me on in March, it was to really assess the hospital capacity and our manpower capacity. And I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a number of other things related to the pandemic response, the old testing regime and things of that nature and stuff. But really, my primary role and responsibility as you outlined for me was to assess our healthcare capacity and the manpower that it would take to sustain ourselves through the pandemic. We prepared for that through your leadership and direction. We experienced that in July, and through your leadership and direction, we did very well through that. The healthcare system in Texas is incredibly robust, and hats off to them for stepping up and finding places to take care of patients within their facilities, finding manpower across the entire country to come in and care for patients in some of their worst times.
Dr. Zerwas: (33:24)
And now we’re seeing this on the downside. And I’m reminded that when we came together on this, it was to, one, let’s protect everybody as much as we can, let’s limit the number of fatalities and deaths. Let’s cocoon those people that are at high risk, and let’s protect the integrity of the healthcare system. And Governor, your leadership has allowed us to really recognize the depth and breadth of our healthcare system. And I’m very, very pleased and very proud to be part of this team. And I’m very pleased and very confident in the metrics that you’ve set forth to help guide us through the balance of this until we get a vaccine, better therapeutic agents, and so forth. So thank you for that, and my hat’s off to all the healthcare providers out there, doctors, nurses, and the many others that make those facilities work. I see the hero signs everywhere I go, and truly, you all are heroes. Thank you.
Governor Greg Abbott: (34:20)
Very good. Next, Cecile Young, the commissioner for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.
Cecile Young: (34:28)
Thank you, Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Mr. Speaker, for this opportunity for the amazing leadership that you’ve provided during this pandemic. Governor, the announcement for opening up visitation, expanding visitation more, is wonderful news for our families and the residents of these facilities. We know that we have had to safely protect these residents because of the damage of COVID-19, but there is a very real loneliness and isolation that happens. And so by opening up, I think the families will be so pleased, and the residents will be so comforted. So thank you for this excellent announcement, and we look forward to working with you. Thank you.
Governor Greg Abbott: (35:13)
Well, thank you for your help getting that done.
Cecile Young: (35:15)
Governor Greg Abbott: (35:16)
And now the Chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, Nim Kidd.
Nim Kidd: (35:19)
Thank you, Governor. And for all of the first responders and healthcare workers that are out there, thank you. Especially the almost 8,000 contract doctors and nurses that came in, put their families and everything else on the side to help support us in our time of need. Our PPE caches are very deep. We’ve got millions of masks, hundreds of millions, literally still available to go out. Our testing is getting more and more prevalent. There’s over 1800 places in Texas today to go get a COVID-19 test. The turnaround times are getting faster, and better and better. And the final news is we’re still in the throes of hurricane season. So while we’re talking about COVID-19 today, please take a moment to make sure your family has a plan. And then again, we’re supporting responses all over this nation. We have over 250 firefighters out in California. Our Urban Search & Rescue team is returning from Louisiana today.
Speaker 3: (36:03)
… in California. Our urban search and rescue team is returning from Louisiana today. Just hats off to the men and woman that keep doing a great job to keep us safe. Thank you.
Greg Abbott: (36:07)
Thank you, Chief. We’ll take a few questions.
Speaker 4: (36:09)
Hey, Governor, you were at the White House in April, right before the big spike here in Texas. At or around the same time, the president was telling Bob Woodward it was a lot worse than he was telling everyone else. Do you feel the least bit betrayed by that? Do you feel the least bit even unwittingly complicit in spreading that message that things were safer than they actually were?
Greg Abbott: (36:32)
I’ve had the opportunity to visit with the president dozens of times about the COVID-19 virus, and every time I’ve talked to him about it, he’s been very serious about it. He’s been urging Texas to take the type of action that is needed to curtail the spread of the virus. When I was with him in Orange, Texas, just a couple of weeks ago, he applauded me for the actions that Texas did take.
Speaker 5: (36:55)
Hey, Governor, you stated that we’ve [inaudible 00:36:58] talk about preventing it. Earlier today, we overtook California, we had 30% of the population in number of deaths. We’re number one today, right at this moment, in new coronavirus infections, that’s our rank [inaudible 00:37:13]. How do you feel you’ve done a good job when we’re number one in infections and number two now [inaudible 00:37:11] in deaths?
Greg Abbott: (37:24)
The number of infections have been slashed by two-thirds since July. The number of hospitalizations, which is the most important metric that shows the severity of the spread in any particular region has been slashed by two-thirds since July. Yesterday, we had the lowest number of hospitalizations in the state of Texas. All the metrics continue to show that Texas is moving in the right direction, but we-
Speaker 5: (37:51)
But we’re still [inaudible 00:37:52] at this moment, as we speak, we’re ahead of Georgia, we’re ahead of Florida, we’re ahead of California. Yet you’re claiming prevention is working when it clearly isn’t.
Greg Abbott: (38:02)
I don’t know what’s going on in other states. What I do know is this very easy and clear math: If you look at the number of active cases in the state of Texas, the number of active cases of COVID in the state of Texas has been cut more than half since July. If you look at the total number of hospitalizations, they’ve been slashed by two-thirds since July. Again, the numbers are in a downtrend. Everybody in Texas can easily pull out a chart in whatever region they are in and they will see that Texas has been on a steady downtrend since July. I must emphasize this, the reason why every doctor has said that Texas is on a downtrend is because Texans are taking COVID seriously and they are adopting the best practices of distancing themselves from others, sanitizing their hands and wearing a mask when possible.
Speaker 6: (39:00)
[ inaudible 00:02:58].
Speaker 7: (39:01)
[inaudible 00:39:01] reopen, you mentioned having a call for health protocols. Will there be testing requirements? Then, additionally, are there any plans to increase rapid testing in those nursing homes as [inaudible 00:39:09] increases?
Greg Abbott: (39:11)
The short answer to your questions is yes. The Federal Health and Human Services and CMS have required certain testing standards in nursing homes that must be implemented by the end of this month. We are being provided the testing capability to do that. Then in addition to that, we’re using state-based protocols that mimic the federal protocols for the other type of living facilities, because we do want to continue to safeguard the health and safety of the residents in those facilities.
Governor, in regards to the bars, last month the state loosened some things, made some modifications in regard to full-service kitchens to reopen. This new expansion order that you’re doing, does this apply to those type of facilities or do you want them to hold at where they’re at right now?
Greg Abbott: (40:02)
Well, so what those bars had done, they have re-categorized as restaurants. Every restaurant that is operating as a restaurant can expand to 75% in all but those three regions. Remember this, however, Rudy, and that is that restaurants have certain protocols that require their patrons to be seated. Remember that if restaurants are not following those protocols, those restaurants can lose their license. When patrons come into a restaurant, they’re required to be wearing a mask until they are seated. They’re required to stay seated unless they need to go to the restroom or unless they are leaving and if they’re walking around anywhere in the restaurant they’re supposed to have a mask on. If restaurants are not following those standards, those restaurants stand to lose their license.
Speaker 6: (40:47)
Last question, [inaudible 00:40:49] Last question, [inaudible 00:40:49].
Speaker 8: (40:50)
Governor, throughout this pandemic, Texas has not expanded mail-in voting while dozens of states [inaudible 00:40:57] expand that. Was that something you ever considered? Why is Texas not doing what so many other states, including many run by your party, [inaudible 00:41:08]?
Greg Abbott: (41:11)
With regard to mail-in voting, that is a process that the legislature has evaluated every single year, and you have everyone in the House, everyone in the Senate and the leadership on both sides, weigh in and determine what those voting standards should be. Those voting standards are thoughtfully arrived at and have proven to be effective.
Greg Abbott: (41:35)
As you know, what I did do to ensure the safety of people during the election process is to ensure there would be an additional week for people to be able to vote early so that they would not be required to go into crowded settings when they go about the process of voting early.
Speaker 6: (41:50)
Thanks, guys. We’ve got to go.
Speaker 9: (41:50)