Coronavirus updates in Texas: Not all insurance plans cover telemedicine; state economy battered on two fronts

A sign for washing hands is seen during a news media tour of quarantine facilities for treating novel coronavirus at Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. Photo credit: REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

Today’s biggest developments:

  • Harris County, home to Houston, has halted all evictions through the end of March
  • San Antonio-area cases jump to 25; Travis County cases rise to 23
  • As virus spreads and officials urge working from home, some government employees are being forced to come in

“Non-essential visits” suspended in state hospitals and supported living centers

[4:30 p.m.] Health authorities are suspending "non-essential visits" to state hospitals and state-supported living centers, including family association meetings, volunteer services council meetings and express hiring events. Through a press release, the Texas Health and Human Services also asked to prioritize phone meetings when possible.

“We are working across the state to protect the health and safety of the people we serve and our staff at our state hospitals and living centers,” said Mike Maples, HHS deputy executive commissioner for the Health and Specialty Care System, which operates state hospitals and living centers.

The policy does not apply to visits for people receiving end-of-life care, state investigators, law enforcement and other authorities. There might be “rare exceptions”, according to HHS, which will need approval, and all approved visitors will be screened for temperature and their travel history.— Juan Pablo Garnham

For criminal defendants, virus restrictions mean more jail time and higher risk

[3:20 p.m.] New restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the new coronavirus have slowed Texas courts to a crawl, and judges were told Thursday morning they “must not” conduct non-essential proceedings in person if doing so would conflict with local, state or national directives about limiting group size. Multiple Texas cities have prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people — making many court proceedings impossible.

Jury trials are paused indefinitely across most if not all of Texas, and the plea deals or bench trials that could speed individuals’ release from jails are on hold in many places, too. That leaves many people who have not yet been convicted of a crime stuck in jail, where cramped and often unsanitary conditions increase the risk of contracting the virus. — Jolie McCullough and Emma Platoff

Texas testing and coronavirus cases increase

[1:30 p.m.] In Texas, at least 161 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and three people have died, according to the latest numbers provided Thursday by the Texas Department of State Health Services and Centers for Disease Control. This is a 50% increase from the 95 cases reported Wednesday. The most affected county is Dallas, with 20 cases, followed by Harris, with 10. The state tracks cases by county of residence, and some patients are treated outside of the county where they live, so today’s data also lists 35 cases in which investigators are still determining the county of residence.

The state health agency says that these numbers may differ from local reports, given that some jurisdictions are making their data public before sending it to the state and also because they might be including residents of other countries in their reports. At least 2,335 tests have been administered. — Juan Pablo Garnham

Evictions halted in Harris County

[11:15 a.m.] At a press conference Thursday morning, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced that justices of the peace won’t conduct evictions until the end of March and she is working to extend this policy to April.

“We don’t want people out on the street simply because they are out of a job,” Hidalgo said.

The county judge explained that it is still unclear how much of the $104 billion from the federal coronavirus relief fund will come to her county, which has a population larger than most states, with more than 4.6 million people.

“It’s very important that part of that aid comes to Harris County,” Hidalgo said. “We hope and believe that our legislative partners will help ensure that those funds arrive.”

Hidalgo also said that a shelter-in-place measure is still a possibility in Harris County. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted Tuesday that this policy won’t be happening in the city limits. — Juan Pablo Garnham

Travis County reports 23 positive cases

[8:30 a.m.] The number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Travis County increased to 23 on Wednesday, the Austin American-Statesman reported. That’s an increase of five new cases since Tuesday, according to information from Travis County and Austin health officials. That total includes a physician at the St. David’s Health Care hospital system. — Juan Pablo Garnham

San Antonio COVID-19 cases reach 25

[7:20 a.m.] San Antonio, the first city in Texas to offer drive-through testing for the new coronavirus, has confirmed 25 cases in the area as of Wednesday — more than doubling the total of 11 from earlier in the week, the San Antonio-Express News has reported. University Health System has reported two employees — a nurse and a resident physician — have both tested positive following travel-related exposure and are isolating at home while officials “are working to locate those who were potentially exposed,” the newspaper reported. Another resident physician at UHS previously tested positive. The new cases are not yet reflected in the statewide totals reported by the Texas Department of Health Services, which shows four confirmed cases in Bexar County. — Dave Harmon

Not all insurance plans pay for remote health care that officials are urging

[5:00 a.m.] As millions of Texans isolate themselves in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, state officials are working to ramp up the use of telemedicine, which allows patients to talk to health care workers by phone or video chat.

Doctors this week applauded a sweeping emergency rule from Gov. Greg Abbott that requires state-regulated health plans to pay doctors for virtual visits at the same rate they would for in-person visits. Meanwhile, the federal government is loosening restrictions on telemedicine in Medicare, the public insurance program for the elderly. Still, Texans’ ability to access telemedicine depends largely on the kind of insurance they have — if they have insurance at all. — Edgar Walters

Some government employees aren't being given the option to work from home

[5:00 a.m.] Donald Trump issued guidelines suggesting people avoid groups larger than 10 people. Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott directed state agencies to provide flexible and remote work options to employees.

But despite federal and state guidance, interviews with employees show that government agencies at every level — local, state, federal — are still requiring many workers to come in, forcing them to choose between their health and their job security while potentially putting the public at risk. — Raga Justin and Sami Sparber

Unemployment in Texas is expected to go up, but COVID-19's full economic punch still unclear

[5:00 a.m.] As Texans limit how much they're in public, many people have lost jobs or had their hours cut by businesses adapting to limited or shuttered operations. The economic double whammy of the public health crisis combined with the steep drop in oil prices has experts here unclear about how deeply COVID-19 will impact Texas' economy.

Many hope Congress can agree — quickly — on a large economic stimulus package. But experts say it’s hard to know how much help is enough because no one knows how long the public health crisis will continue. — Mitchell Ferman