Near the end of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, the county commissioners gather in a nearly empty room at the Collin County courthouse. The few guests in attendance are scattered far from each other in the seats behind their table, social distancing to the best of their ability. It’s here that the county commissioners—County Judge Chris Hill, and commissioners Susan Fletcher, Cheryl Williams, Darrell Hale, and Duncan Webb—make decisions that affect us all.
During COVID-19, Texas counties have been charged with taking the lead on the pandemic. They have been in charge of distributing information to the cities, determining shelter-in-place rules, and accounting for the cases within the county lines. However, at the May 4 commissioners meeting, county administrator Bill Bilyeu announced that the State of Texas now has entered into a consulting contract with an unnamed vendor, allowing them to take over all cases and contact verification.
Now, beginning May 6, the state is in charge of doing contact verification, following leads, and looking after persons under monitoring (PUM).
It means several changes on the county level. One of the biggest steps each county will need to take is accounting for the cases currently active in Collin County, formatting them and uploading them to the state. Because of all the steps required, Bilyeu estimated that the conversion over to the state will take three to four weeks.
The main change, he said, will be the effort put in at the county level. It’s been a long few months for everyone in Collin County with the arrival of COVID-19, and no less so for the county government. As Bilyeu pointed out, the county has been in triage, working to handle COVID-19 crisis. He describes an “all hands on deck” attitude within county government. People from other departments within the county have been coming in to work on weekends in order to keep up with the pandemic.
According to the new contract, between 2,000 and 2,500 people are being brought on board at the state level to help with the takeover. In particular, the state is looking to bring on healthcare professionals like school nurses.
“By Wednesday,” County Judge Chris Hill cut in at that point. “They’re planning on standing up a force of 2,500 people in two days. That’s remarkable.”
The state hopes that by taking over of COVID-19 cases, there will be a greater sense of clarity and order in the handling of it. Much of the controversy has been over how different counties have handled COVID-19. Dallas and Denton Counties both entered shelter-in-place orders before Collin County. Sometimes if a person lives in one county and works in another, road blocks can arise.
For example, there is an ongoing lawsuit concerning exactly this controversy. According to a press release from Dallas-based litigation law firm of Rogge Dunn Group PC, Amy Reggio, who was the former general counsel for Frisco-based real estate investment and development company Tekin & Associates, was fired because she requested to work from home during the COVID-19 quarantine.
Reggio is a resident of Dallas County, so when Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins ordered a shutdown, Reggio asked to be allowed to work at home. She feared legal repercussions.
“Not only did Mr. Tekin repeatedly refuse to consider Amy’s requests, he proved to be increasingly belligerent in expressing his anger over the fact that she shared her concerns, refused to violate the law, and asked to work from home,” attorney Rogge Dunn, who represents Reggio, wrote.
Josh Iacuone, a business attorney for Rogge Dunn Group law firm, told Local Profile that they’ve been “flooded” with calls from concerned workers like Reggio, some of whom are facing similar situations or are worried about essential businesses not having personal protective equipment. “It is time for employers to be good corporate citizens,” he said.“The health of the community starts with employees, and they are stressing about kids who are out of school and feel like they have to go to work and get sick or lose their job if they don’t.”
Hopefully, with the state now setting all limits, this kind of issue can be avoided. The recently passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act will help. It requires certain employers to provide paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division administers will enforce the paid leave requirements.
The state can’t take any of these kinds of actions without information on what needs to be done. To provide that, local doctors will now report to the state, not just the county. However, Bilyeu noted one item of concern: the state has already warned counties that reporting most current COVID-19 numbers to the counties will be a secondary concern.
“They will control all the data, all the numbers, our daily dashboards and reports may be limited in what we get from them,” Hill surmised.
“Some days we get a lot of data from them, sometimes we don’t get a whole lot. We’ve had as low as six reports come in and as much as 730 reports in a day,” Bilyeu said.
At the state level, dashboards will be maintained, but at the county and city level, the commissioners expect their accounting for COVID-19 to die off as their data will likely become increasingly degraded.
“The state is absolutely correct that first priority is the health of individuals and reporting is secondary, but reporting has its place because it tells us what trends are and helps inform the decisions we make and as we look ahead to forecast,” Hill said.
The state also warned that they will no longer be sending records of negative COVID-19 tests, which the commissioners note may be an unpopular decision.
“Our citizens want to see that data and I think it’s a trust issue, transparency,” Hill said. “If it’s taken out of our hands, it’s fair to say it’s been taken out of our hands.”
While the county waits for the state to make the transition, Bilyeu raised the issue of a program for the county to cover the copay costs for citizens who have no insurance, perhaps a voucher that can be printed off and given to the healthcare providers and testing centers. While the details have not been decided, Hill asked the commissioners if they would be open to setting aside money for the purpose.
Their response came immediately and unanimously: “Definitely.”