State leaders respond as COVID-19 crisis takes a toll on jobs

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AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Cases of COVID-19 are spreading quickly in Texas. Hospitals are bracing for a flood of patients, and state leaders are taking new steps to respond to the crisis.

On Thursday, Governor Greg Abbott ordered a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for air travelers entering Texas from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, or New Orleans. Travelers from those areas will be required to fill out a form before leaving the airport. Department of Public Safety troopers will conduct unannounced spot checks to make sure the self-quarantine is being followed.

Earlier in the week, the governor issued an executive order aimed at increasing the number of hospital beds available in Texas. Abbott said that order led to more than 3,000 beds becoming available at hospitals around the state.

The state reported more than 2,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases by Saturday afternoon. Doctors and nurses believe a surge of patients could come soon.

“If we don’t take the shelter in place seriously, it will only be a matter of time,” said Serena Bumpus, Director of Practice for the Texas Nurses Association.

Surge of unemployment claims swamp Texas system

Many Texans are finding the coronavirus to be more than a health crisis. Unemployment claims in Texas spiked in the past week. And the huge number of applications overwhelmed the state agency in charge of approving applications.

The website for the Texas Workforce Commission crashed under the load. People who tried to call the agency for help reported that they could not get their calls answered.

The agency knows people are having trouble getting through. The TWC made some adjustments to try to fix the problems. The agency plans to shift 200 employees to add staff to its four call centers. They also announced plans to hire up to 100 more workers to handle claims.

“I know it’s hard to hear this, but have a little patience with us,” TWC executive director Ed Serna said during an online news conference.

Calls to shorten shutdown bring criticism – and support

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick is taking heated criticism for suggesting that ending coronavirus business shutdowns sooner than later is worth the potentially deadly health consequences.

In an interview televised on Fox News, Patrick said older Texans like himself are willing to risk dying from COVID-19 if it means saving the economy for future generations.

“My message is let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living,” Patrick told Tucker Carlson. “Those of us that are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.”

Patrick’s comments brought out forceful responses on social media opposing the idea from people who believe it’s wrong to put economic needs over human life.

“His plan is just crazy,” said Abhi Rahman from the Texas Democratic Party. “It’s ridiculous that he would even say something like that.”

Some Republicans defended Patrick’s comments.

“A two to three week shutdown, I think we can handle. But two, three, four months, or even nine months, that is going to be very hard to come back from,” said Matt Mackowiak of the Travis County Republican Party. “I think that is the message the Lieutenant Governor is trying to convey.”

A months-long business shutdown will cost the Texas economy billions of dollars. But Texans could have a chance to control the length of the crisis.

“Listen to what the government authorities are saying: stay home,” advised Angelos Angelou, an economic consultant. “Hopefully, this is going to be temporary.”

Governor Abbott says he knows that some Texans want to get back to work. “That said, everyone understands we will be working under the advice of medical professionals,” Abbott said.

Cracking down on price gouging

Medical equipment and supplies are crucial as health care teams work to slow the spread of COVID-19. But necessary supplies like medical masks have been hard to come by. Part of the problem is being blamed on people who bought up supplies early, in hopes of making a profit.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr says the Department of Justice has seen evidence of hoarding critical medical supplies and trying to sell them at higher prices.

“We get some reports of warehouses full of equipment,” Barr said. He said the department is looking into hoarding of personal protective medical gear.

Barr says anyone trying to profit off of the pandemic will face prosecution. “That could involve prison time, but it could also involve a fine,” Barr said.

The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is also getting complaints. The state’s consumer protection division has received more than 2,500 complaints of price gouging. Those complaints allege things like toilet paper and hand sanitizer are being sold at higher prices than normal.

Paxton’s office says investigators are evaluating those complaints.

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