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Amarillo Mayor: New Testing Data Will Help Track Spread As Rest Of Texas Reopens

May 20, 2020

In Texas, as more businesses get the green light to reopen, those plans have been delayed in some areas where the governor says jump in positive COVID-19 cases follow ramped-up testing capacity.

Over the weekend, Texas saw its highest single-day number of confirmed COVID-19 cases — more than 1,800 — since the start of the outbreak. Over 700 of those positive cases were recorded in Amarillo, a spike that officials link to increased testing at the city's Tyson Foods plant.

"We've had a spike in positive test results come back," Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson told NPR's Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition. "But it's because we've had the support of the state of Texas and even the support from the president and recognizing that our meat packing industry is a critical part of our nation's food supply."

President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act as one of several measures to keep meatpacking plants open. To address the surge in positive cases, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a so-called Surge Response Team to Amarillo to provide testing and personal protective equipment to plant workers.

Texas hasn't met Abbott's goal to test 30,000 per day. Still, the Republican governor has begun to lift restrictions on restaurants, movie theaters, salons and gyms. Abbott has postponed the phased re-openings in Potter and Randall Counties, over which the city of Amarillo stretches.

Mayor Nelson thinks the new testing data can help inform decisions on reopening her region safely.

"I think it's important for us to be open as quickly as we can be, but only if we can safely do it," she said. "Some additional testing does help us track where the disease is spreading. That helps the industry track what's happening inside their facilities. I think we'll use that information more strategically."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Most of Texas is reopening despite a surge of cases in some places. The people who support that reopening include Brenda McKenna (ph), who suffered from COVID-19.

BRENDA MCKENNA: It's this pain in my chest and my back. It's horrible. And so they took my temperature, and it was, like, 103.2-something.

INSKEEP: She's the county clerk for Moore County and was sick for weeks.

MCKENNA: I'd already started the cough, but my chest and my back started hurting like somebody had hot, serrated butcher knives stabbing me in the chest and in the back.

INSKEEP: That sounds unpleasant. But the 65-year-old grandmother wants economic life to resume.

MCKENNA: There's mom and dads that aren't getting paychecks. How are they paying rent? How are they paying their house payment? How are they paying a car payment? That breaks my heart. And I believe in freedom. And like I told my preacher, you know what? We're adults. We're adults. And 99% of us can make wise decisions.

INSKEEP: There are, though, some hot spots in Texas, including Amarillo, Texas, where cases are up, and the governor delayed the next phase of reopening in that area. The mayor of Amarillo, Ginger Nelson, is on the line. Good morning.

GINGER NELSON: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: What has happened in your city in the last few days?

NELSON: Well, in the last few days, we've had a spike in positive test results come back, but it's because we've had the support of the state of Texas and even the support from the president in recognizing that our meatpacking industry is a critical part of our nation's food supply. And so they sent extra testing supplies. We had a surge team come here and test employees in those plants. And that's been the result of our - extra testing has really resulted in extra positive tests.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is very interesting. The president invoked the Defense Production Act as one of several measures to keep meatpacking plants open. You have a Tyson plant there, is that right?

NELSON: That's right, yes.

INSKEEP: And so the government forced these plants to stay open but has also promised them extra protective equipment and, I guess, extra tests in your case and, in your case, you found out more thoroughly what's going on.

NELSON: Yeah, even - you know, the CDC came and spent a week here just to help them strategize because these businesses are critical to the nation's food supply chain. And we've got to protect the safety of those employees that work there, but they must stay open. You know, just even listening to - your guest before me was talking about food insecurity, and that supply chain is very important there. So, you know, we're really proud to supply a lot of the nation's food.

Over a quarter of the nation's beef comes from this region. And unfortunately, this unique situation with the meatpacking industry has affected us for COVID. But I'm really grateful to have the governor's support and even the attention of the president in recognizing how critical we are to the food supply chain of the nation.

INSKEEP: Well, now because of this extra testing, you have a more complete idea of what is going on in Amarillo, and you know how extensive the disease is, at least in one area or in one population of your metro area. What are the implications for the rest of your city as you think about reopening economic life?

NELSON: I think it's important for us to be open as quickly as we can be, but only if we can safely do it. This information that we have from additional testing does help us track where the disease is spreading. It helps the industry track what's happening inside their facilities. And I think we'll use that information more strategically.

Part of it has to do with the way people live in houses, and it's the individual choices that we're making to socially distance, to wash our hands, to wear our masks, that ultimately are going to have an effect on how this outbreak spreads through the city of Amarillo or every city in our nation. So we're continuing to talk about education and asking people to make wise choices for themselves but also for the people that they live with and the people that they come in contact with when they're out and about in the city.

INSKEEP: Can you see schools reopening this fall in your city?

NELSON: Oh, that is a challenging question, isn't it? In a lot of ways, I can't see them not opening because of what it means to families who need to go back to work, to kids who need the socialization. The mental health aspects of going to school, the physical health aspects - not just protecting from the outbreak, but, you know, there are a lot of physical, food insecurity and other physical needs that - kids get those needs met at school.

INSKEEP: About 15 seconds.

NELSON: So that's a challenge that - we've got to sit down and figure out how we can get schools open this fall.

INSKEEP: OK. Still...

NELSON: Safely, but open.

INSKEEP: Safely, but open - that's your goal, anyway.

NELSON: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Mayor Nelson, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

NELSON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Ginger Nelson is the mayor of Amarillo, Texas, where a spike in cases has been detected, connected with a Tyson food plant. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.