Coronavirus pandemic

Area bars are gearing up to reopen, as local officials identified eight new COVID-19 related deaths on Wednesday.

These fatalities, which brought Bell County’s COVID-19 death toll to 290, were for a woman in her 80s from Temple, a man in his 80s from Temple, three women in their 70s from Killeen, a woman in her 60s from Killeen, a man in his 70s from Bell County and a woman in her 60s from Belton, Bell County spokesman James Stafford said.

The county also registered a single-day case increase of 85, bringing its cumulative total to 19,881, according to health district data. Additional cases were added to provisional data from previous days.

Hospitalization rate

Bell County bars can reopen at 50 percent capacity as the Department of State Health Services no longer considers Bell County a high-hospitalization area, Bell County Judge David Blackburn said Wednesday.

“It is very encouraging to see our COVID-19 hospitalization rates have dropped,” Blackburn said. “I know there are many Bell County businesses that are eager to reopen to higher occupancy levels.”

Blackburn’s announcement came days after Texas Department of State Health Services data on Monday showed that Trauma Service Area L — a region that includes Bell, Milam, Coryell, Lampasas, Hamilton and Mills counties — surpassed the 15 percent threshold again on Sunday with a hospitalization rate of 19.63 percent. However, DSHS spokesman Chris Van Deusen said Wednesday that figure was incorrect.

“There was initially an error in the hospital capacity numbers we received from the hospitals,” Van Deusen said. “It was corrected later, but it looks like that didn’t make it to the public dashboard.”

Van Deusen said the correct percentage should have been 11.1 percent for Feb. 7. “We’ll get it updated,” he said.

Stafford said John Hellerstedt, the Texas Department of State Health Services’ commissioner, confirmed that hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Bell County’s trauma service area has not exceeded 15 percent of the region’s total hospital capacity for seven consecutive days — a requirement to reopen certain businesses to 75 percent capacity.

“Certain Bell County venues may now reopen to 75 percent capacity levels as allowed under (executive order) GA-32,” Stafford said. “Additionally, Judge Blackburn filed the necessary paperwork with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to allow the reopening of bars and similar establishments in Bell County (to 50 percent). He submitted that paperwork this morning.”

Blackburn said he noticed the inaccurate figure displayed on the DSHS’ public dashboard.

“It was resolved internally at DSHS but I didn’t know that … I was just happy to get the letter,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “But I think this good news for businesses in Bell County and Bell County in general.”

He added that area hospital systems seem hopeful that Trauma Service Area L’s COVID-19 hospitalization rate will continue to decline.

“I think they are hoping that will be the case,” Blackburn said. “I had discussions with the hospitals once I received the letter, and they’re making plans to resume more normalized operations. But they still have a significant number of COVID-19 patients in the hospitals, so we’ll all be watching that hospital capacity number in the days moving forward.”

Businesses, which include restaurants, retail stores, office buildings, gyms, museums and libraries, were initially ordered to reduce occupancy to 50 percent on Jan. 5 after Blackburn received a letter from Hellerstedt confirming that Trauma Service Area L was considered to be “a high hospitalization area.”

Area school districts

About 0.27 percent of the Belton Independent School District’s population is recovering from COVID-19, according to district data. On Wednesday, the district reported that 37 active cases span 12 campuses: 11 at Belton High, four at Charter Oak Elementary, four at Sparta Elementary, four at Lake Belton Middle School, three at Belton Middle School, three at South Belton Middle School, two at Pirtle Elementary, two at Lake Belton High, one at Chisholm Trail Elementary, one at High Point Elementary, one at Southwest Elementary and one at the Belton Early Childhood School.

Three additional cases were attributed to “other departments / buildings,” according to Belton ISD’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Salado ISD reached 27 active cases on Wednesday — 19 students and 8 employees — after six new infections were recently identified.

“An eighth-grade student at Salado Middle School tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday (and) an eighth-grade student at Salado Middle School tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday,” Salado ISD Superintendent Michael Novotny said in his daily newsletter. “A third-grade student and an employee at Thomas Arnold Elementary School, an eighth-grade student at Salado Middle School and a ninth-grade student at Salado High School tested positive for on Tuesday.

The Killeen Independent School District has registered 90 COVID-19 cases in the last seven days — about 5.9 percent of its total infections. Since March, Killeen ISD has totaled 1,525 cases: 739 students and 786 employees.

The Temple Independent School District’s seven-day report, which reported cases between Feb. 4 and Feb. 10 — showed eight cases: three at Lamar Middle School, two at Cater Elementary, one at Temple High, one at Hector P. Garcia Elementary and one at Scott Elementary.