Coronavirus

Bell County Judge David Blackburn revised his shelter-in-place order Friday to allow churches to congregate and classified gun stores as essential businesses as health officials said the number of local coronavirus cases jumped to at least 25.

The amended order — which Blackburn said was needed to make it easier for residents to read and understand — came on the heels of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issuing an opinion Friday saying city and county officials cannot prohibit the sales of guns during an emergency declaration.

“In previous directives, churches were prohibited from gathering in groups of more than 10,” Blackburn said, briefly going over the shelter-in-place order he issued Monday. “After reviewing the prohibition further, after visiting with the governor’s office and trying to stay in line and in concert with the directives that are coming from the state, I have removed that prohibition from the directive.”

However, Blackburn strongly advised churches to continue with their new way of holding service: Live streaming it online.

“In places of worship, they are strongly urged to heed and follow the guidelines for limiting the people of gathering, utilizing alternative means for worship … and to follow the social distancing guidelines,” the county’s top elected official said during an online news conference from the Bell County Courthouse in downtown Belton.

All residents are expected to stay six feet away from each other and continue to practice personal hygiene — two activities Blackburn and local health officials have touted as the best way to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

Blackburn extended the shelter-in-place order through April 6. Residents are expected to stay home except for trips to the grocery store, exercise and work at essential businesses. Breaking the order could result in a fine of up to $1,000 or up to 180 days in jail.

So far, Blackburn told the Telegram, residents are complying with the stay-at-home order. No citations have been issued yet and local law enforcement agencies are educating people about the order, he said.

The Commissioners Court on Monday will consider recent amendments to the disaster declaration.

Local testing data expected

Amanda Robinson-Chadwell, the Bell County Public Health District director, provided an update on local COVID-19 cases. The health district identified five new cases Friday: Three Killeen residents, a Harker Heights woman and a Belton resident younger than 20 — the youngest known Bell County resident to get the disease.

It is unknown how the new people listed contracted the disease. The health district, Robinson-Chadwell said, has decided not to report that because community spread is occurring in Bell County.

“Early on focusing on travel made sense because the chances of you being exposed to COVID-19 very earlier on were directly linked to whether you traveled to areas where it was actively spreading,” she explained. “Once we entered that phase of community spread, that really kind of became a moot point. Now you’re as likely to get exposed here as just about anywhere.”

However, Robinson-Chadwell said they are continuing to ask infected individuals about their travel history.

For more than two weeks, county officials have not known the size of local COVID-19 testing inventories. Hospitals were not required to disclose that information. That is changing.

“As far as testing, we are going to start getting reports from the governor,” the health district director said, referring to Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order from Sunday requiring Texas hospitals to issue daily testing reports. “He mandated that local health districts start receiving reports on how many tests have been run in the county.”

Bell County infections

Temple continues to be the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in Bell County. The county’s second most populous city has at least 14 cases.

They include two women in their 20s; three women in their 30s; a woman in her 40s; two women and a man in their 50s; three men and a woman in their 60s; and a woman in her 80s, who died Thursday.

Killeen, Bell County’s largest city, now has at least six infections. They include a woman in her 20s; two men and a woman in their 40s; a woman in her 50s; and a man in his 60s.

Belton, the county seat, has at least two COVID-19 cases: a man in his 20s and a woman younger than 20.

The Belton man was the first known infection in the county. The Bell County Public Health District confirmed he had the new coronavirus on March 15.

“The first individual has recovered,” Robinson-Chadwell said, adding that another person has nearly recovered from COVID-19. Soon, she said, the health district plans to report recoveries in their daily reports.

There are still at least two known COVID-19 cases in rural Bell County: a man in his 70s and a man in his 30s. The health district categorizes small towns, such as Heidenheimer and Little River-Academy, as Bell County cases.

Bell County residents who have COVID-19-related questions can call a local county-operated hotline. It is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Call 254-933-5203 to access it. Calls received after hours and on weekends will be forwarded to 211.

The hotline is averaging about 50 calls a day, Blackburn said.

State, area cases

Statewide, there are at least 1,731 cases and 22 deaths, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. So far, 23,666 people have been tested for the coronavirus, according to the state agency.

Like Bell County, nearby counties reported upticks in their COVID-19 cases.

Williamson County has at least 34 infections, according to its health district. McLennan County reported at least 33 known cases. Milam County has at least two COVID-19 cases while Coryell, Falls and Burnet counties each have at least one. Lampasas County has not reported a case as of Friday.