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Virus cases trigger rollback of restrictions in Galveston, Brazoria, Chambers and Liberty counties

Southeast Texas leaders received news Monday night that the state would mandate a rollback of relaxed COVID-19 restrictions after state data showed the region had more than 15% of its available hospital resources in use for patients infected by the virus for the seventh day in a row.

The Texas Department of State Health Services has been tracking numbers for each of the Trauma Service Areas (TSA) — groupings of counties that share health care resources or rely on each other during events like the pandemic — and has designated regions that meet the sustained 15% threshold as “high hospitalization areas.”

The TSA region — which includes Galveston, Brazoria, Chambers, Liberty, Jefferson, Orange, Hardin, Jasper, and Newton — has been hovering above the 15% threshold for 12 days now, but the count reset on Dec. 14 after state data showed resources dipped to 14.39%.

But, with active cases exponentially growing and Jefferson County breaking a record for its deadliest month before the end of December, the region hit a high of 39% of its resources in use on Thursday and recorded 21.5% in use on Sunday.

“Under the criteria laid out in GA-32, your area, TSAR, meets the definition of a high hospitalization area and so may not conduct elective surgeries or reopen to the higher levels allowable under GA-32,” the letter from DSHS said.

Starting at 8 a.m. today, businesses are expected to roll back to 50% occupancy inside buildings, and bars will close to indoor service.

The counties in high hospitalization areas will have increased restrictions until COVID hospitalizations drop below 15% for seven consecutive days, which could take some time based on incoming active cases and growing death counts.

Beaumont reported three more deaths on Monday to add to the already record-breaking month of 45 deaths in Jefferson County so far in December.

Since Friday, 130 new cases have been reported in Jefferson County; 53 came from Beaumont’s Monday report alone.

Individual counties can ask the state for an exemption to the rollback if there haven’t been more than 30 cases within a two-week period.

Hardin County Judge Wayne McDaniel said he would ask the state to consider an exemption for his county, but he had doubts about the success of the request since the county’s infection rates disqualified it for the provision.

“I just hate to see the businesses and people that have been through so much this year be hit again,” he said.

“If it was shown that COVID was being spread through our businesses, I would be 100% in support, but I don’t think we have the evidence of that.”

Instead of the rate of new cases, McDaniel will ask that the state consider its contact tracing investigations as evidence that the county is capable of reopening.

While local public health agencies and their contact tracers do have some of the most accurate information about what is happening in communities, issues with the ability to track infections have increased.

Mike White, Jefferson County Emergency Management Coordinator, said signs indicate restrictions have become less effective as the pandemic stretches on.

“We’ve been doing this almost a year now, and I think people are getting COVID fatigue,” he said.

“It is showing because we see people being less and less stringent on what they are doing.”

Beaumont Public Health Director Sherry Ulmer told the Enterprise on Dec. 14 that lack of compliance with surveys and fact-finding after a case was detected had made it difficult to say whether there had been an increase in infections contracted from public places.

What has become clear, especially after the Thanksgiving holiday, is the number of cases driven by large private gatherings in homes and other enclosed spaces.

As Christmas approaches, McDaniel is concerned about gatherings that could lead to another spike and prolonged restrictions for the region.

“If anything at all, maybe this will help some people see it is a bad idea to have a large group of people together for Christmas,” he said.

“Christmas is just the time of year when families gather. I’m not going to say they shouldn’t, because I don’t think I have the authority.”