San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff have appointed nine medical and public health experts to a task force charged with developing strategies for slowly reopening the local economy while continuing to combat the spread of coronavirus.
The task force, called the COVID-19 Health Transition Team, is composed of Dawn Emerick, the City’s Metropolitan Health District director; Dr. Junda Woo, Metro Health’s medical director; Dr. Ruth Berggren, UT Health San Antonio infectious disease specialist; Dr. Bryan Alsip, University Health System (UHS) Chief Medical Officer; Cherise Rohr-Allegrini, public health consultant; Dr. Tom Patterson, chair of Infectious Disease at UT Health Science Center; Dr. Carrie DeWitt, group manager and infectious disease physician; and Dr. Jason Morrow, medical director of Inpatient Palliative Care Services at UHS.
Dr. Barbara Taylor, associate professor of infectious diseases and associate dean for the MD/MPH Program at UT Health San Antonio, will serve as chair.
“There are already plans that have been semi-drafted by Metro Health, by other places in town, by CDC and FEMA about how you would stage reopening the country or a city like San Antonio,” Woo said Thursday. “The idea is to look at what we know and get expert opinion because we don’t have a whole lot of evidence at this point. This whole virus only started in December 2019.”
The group will develop a health transition plan by April 27, according to a City news release. The plan also will include measures to be taken to shut things down again if conditions require it, Nirenberg said.
“[The group will help City and County leadership] come up with the conditions and circumstances by which we would begin to ease out of social distancing restrictions as well as those data points and triggers we need to be cognizant of in the event that we have to push back into restrictions,” Nirenberg said.
Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), who lobbied for more Council representation in such discussions over the past two weeks and serves as the chair of Council’s temporarily defunct Public Health and Equity Committee, was appointed as the liaison for the task force. Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) will be the liaison for Commissioners Court.
Locally and nationally, reopening the economy will likely be a slow process. Some cities across the U.S. – in Michigan, Ohio, and North Carolina – have seen protests against social distancing measures that some see as too strict.
As President Donald Trump released a set of guidelines Thursday for states to start loosening restrictions, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to make a similar announcement about reopening Texas on Friday.
“I think that [plans are] going to vary across the nation,” Wolff said. “Some states have less problems than we do. … Even within a state there’s going to be things that we want people to do that maybe the state doesn’t say [to do].”
Wolff said the business community also will have a chance to review the advice from the health panel.
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“The whole effort is to make sure that we can begin to enjoy some of the activities we used to but also prevent a second wave of this pandemic and end up in an even worst spot than we are now,” Nirenberg said. “That has to be done thoughtfully, that has to be driven by public health first. So that’s why it’s important to convene medical professionals to come up with the rules of the road.”
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Considerations of local hospital capacity will continue even after some businesses open, he added.
“When it comes to bringing back some businesses, they’re going to have some practices in place to make it safe,” he said. “When we’re over the peak of this infection group, that doesn’t mean there are not infections taking place in the community.”
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When businesses can open is a question for medical experts to answer, he said. “People want to guess when they can open up, but without data and without guidance from the health community we’re kind of flying blind. I think business leaders small and large …. has been very clear: ‘We want to get back to business, but we also don’t want to do it carelessly.'”
Nirenberg and Wolff have extended their Stay Home, Work Safe orders, which enforce non-essential business closures and social distancing requirements, through April 30 in alignment with Abbott’s state order.
Earlier this month, they established five joint working groups to tackle the region’s response in the areas of federal and state advocacy, philanthropy, food security and shelter, business and employment, and social services. All 10 council members and all four county commissioners serve on at least one committee along with community leaders (such as business owners and service providers) and their staffs.