Mobile COVID-19 testing is coming to Gregg County next week, the county judge announced Thursday as Texas prepared for today's numerous reopenings that mark the next phase of putting the state back in business after being shut down from the global pandemic.

Hair, nail and tanning salons, barbershops, wedding venues and swimming pools all were allowed to reopen today with restrictions under executive orders issued Tuesday by Gov. Greg Abbott. 

Harrison County reported another death from COVID-19 on Thursday, along with eight new confirmed cases, while Gregg County increased its number of positive cases by seven.

Gregg County Health Administrator A.J. Harris said the new cases brought the county's tally of residents confirmed to have contracted the virus to 122.

Harris said 1,396 tests had been performed in the county for COVID-19 of Thursday, with 1,176 negative results and 96 pending results. The county has had 48 recoveries and two deaths.

Gregg County residents who want to be tested next week for the novel coronavirus must make an appointment. Mobile testing is set for 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at the Longview Fairgrounds at 1123 Jaycee Drive. Patrons are asked to enter using the Jaycee Drive entrance.

“I’m very excited to announce this today,” County Judge Bill Stoudt said Thursday.

To register in advance for mobile testing at any of the sites, go to txcovidtest.org or call (512) 883-2400.

Stoudt said people qualify to be screened if they have fever, chills, cough, fatigue, shortness of breath, body aches, muscle or joint pain, sore throat, headache, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, nasal congestion or loss of taste and/or smell.

More than 1,200 personnel spread across 25 teams with the Texas Army National Guard have been deployed across the state to provide COVID-19 testing. Each team has the capacity to test 150 people at each site.

Mobile testing sites also are scheduled for 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at the Marshall Convention Center, 2510 East End Blvd. S. and at the Kellyville Community Center, 130 Park Road, off Texas 49, Jefferson.

Testing also is planned in Mount Pleasant on Saturday, in Daingerfield on Sunday and in Gilmer on Monday. Those cities, along with Carthage and Henderson, also have hosted mobile testing in the past couple of weeks. 

Testing at each site will be available by appointment only, and preregistration usually is required the day before testing. 

Across the 25-county East Texas region, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 had risen to at least 1,552 on Thursday, up from 1,483 a day earlier. The region has had 52 total deaths from the virus as of Thursday.

Harrison County Judge Chad Sims reported one of those deaths Thursday. Sims said the fatality brought his county's death toll from the new coronavirus to nine. 

Sims said in his afternoon update that the eight new cases in Harrison County bring the cumulative tally of cases there to 172. The county has had 18 recoveries, which leaves 145 active cases.

He reminded residents that many businesses will be reopening today. 

“It’s a good thing, because a lot of y’all need a haircut,” he said, jokingly, and added, “Remember to wear your mask and keep your barber/hair stylist safe!”

Sims also encouraged people to join the spirit of the National Day of Prayer.

“Please take some time today and join many across the nation in prayer," he said Thursday. "In the midst of this pandemic, there is much to pray about, but we also have much to be thankful for.” 

The Marshall-Harrison County Health District also reported Thursday that as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, a total of 1,161 tests had been administered to county residents, with 959 were negative and 45 results pending.

In Smith County, Sheriff Larry Smith announced Thursday that a total of 16 jail employees and eight inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. He also announced the first positive employee case of the virus at the central jail in downtown Tyler.

Smith said in a statement an emergency medical task force from Abbott's rapid response team is being mobilized to test all North Jail inmates for COVID-19. Testing is expected to begin in the next 48 hours.

Three North Jail inmates have pending test results, and six detention officers are quarantined while they wait for test results. Precautionary measures are being taken at the central jail to prevent an outbreak.

The new coronavirus began at the North Jail when a detention officer tested positive. It was determined that the employee got the virus from a family member who works in the medical field.

"It is unfortunate that due to the range of symptoms from COVID-19, some people have the virus prior to displaying symptoms, allowing for the unknown and easy spread," Smith said in a written statement.

The employee is now considered recovered and returned to work after testing negative in two tests for the virus.

Before the initial employee testing positive, the sheriff's office took preventive measures, including frequent disinfecting and cleaning, ending the crossover of employees working in both jail facilities, stopping movement of inmates from facility to facility and having quarantined inmate’s areas professionally cleaned and disinfected.

Several inmates who were in contact with the employee tested positive, which caused further spread because of some being asymptomatic until they had spread the virus, Smith said.

Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran and Smith chose to test all employees at the North Jail. Testing on Tuesday and Wednesday showed five out of 31 employees tested positive without showing symptoms. These employees are in self-quarantine. On Thursday, 18 North Jail employees were tested, and those results are pending, Smith said.

Across the state, 968 more cases of the new coronavirus were reported Thursday, an increase of about 3% over the previous day, bringing the total number of known cases to 35,390. Shackelford County reported its first case Thursday; more than 85% of the state’s 254 counties have reported at least one case.

Harris County has reported the most cases, 7,244, followed by Dallas County, which has reported 4,869 cases.

The state has reported 25 additional deaths, bringing the statewide total to 973 — an increase of about 3% from Wednesday. Harris County reported six additional deaths, bringing its total to 150 deaths, more than any other county.

As of Thursday, 1,750 patients are known to be hospitalized in Texas. That’s a decrease of 62 patients from Wednesday. At least 455,162 tests have been conducted.

Another 247,179 Texans filed for unemployment last week.

That brings the total number of new claims in the state to about 1.8 million in the past seven weeks, since Abbott declared the coronavirus pandemic a statewide emergency. Nationwide, 3.2 million filed for unemployment last week.

In light of retail stores and restaurants being allowed to reopen, the Texas Workforce Commission relaxed its guidelines to allow employees to refuse to return to work for myriad reasons. They include being at high risk for COVID-19, living with someone who’s high risk or not having access to child care. But just because a worker still can receive benefits doesn’t mean their job will still be waiting for them once they do find it safe to return to work.

“The employer does have a right to replace an employee if that employee is not able to go to work,” commission spokesman Cisco Gamez said Friday. “That person is not protected from being fired.”

Steve Shardonofsky, an employment attorney in Houston, said he worries that the conversation around the new guidelines may give workers a “false sense of security.” Though the modified guidelines allow more workers to stay home, Shardonofsky said disregarding the “fuller context” on the lack of job security could bring more job losses as an “unintended consequence.”

Workers “might be under the impression that their employer has to keep their job open for them and reemploy them. That’s not the case,” Shardonofsky said. “When the worker refuses to return, the company may at that time fill that position with someone else.”

The commission will evaluate claims on a case-by-case basis for people who aren’t able to return to work because of reasons tied to COVID-19. The commission did not provide data on how many workers have claimed they can’t return to work under the new guidelines — Gamez said the data would probably not be accurate because the new guidance is less than a week old.

Some legislation — such as the Family Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act — include provisions that protect workers’ jobs when they go on leave. But the new flexibility on the state’s unemployment guidelines doesn’t automatically trigger the same protections, Shardonofsky said.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked President Donald Trump on Thursday to further limit work-based immigration to the United States and preserve jobs for American workers during the country’s economic recovery efforts.

Trump signed an executive order last month that suspended the processing of new applications for permanent residency, or green cards, but left in place work visas for certain industries, including the medical field and the agriculture and service industries.

In a letter to the president, Cruz said guest-worker programs “remain a serious threat” to America’s economic recovery effort and is calling for suspension of guest-worker visas for at least 60 days. The letter was first reported by Politico.

“The United States admits more than 1 million nonimmigrant guest workers every year, and there is no reason to admit most such workers when our unemployment is so high,” Cruz wrote. U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas; Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; and Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, also signed the letter.

The senators argued that instead of enjoying regular graduation ceremonies, high school and college graduates will instead be fretting about their futures and whether they’ll find employment this year.

“There is no reason why these young people, especially, should not have access to seasonal, nonagricultural work such as summer resort employment or landscaping before those positions are given to imported foreign labor,” the lawmakers wrote.

The senators also called for the possible suspension of some visa applications for up to a year, or until the American economy recovers. Those include visas for high-skilled workers and for nonagricultural guest workers. They also asked Trump to suspend the Optional Practical Training program that allows foreign students to stay in the United States and work.

“While the merits of such a program are subject to debate, there is certainly no reason to allow foreign students to stay for three additional years just to take jobs that would otherwise go to unemployed Americans as our economy recovers,” the senators wrote.

A number of U.S. House Republicans from Texas also weighed in Thursday.

In a separate letter to the president, U.S. Reps. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell; Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler; Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville; and Brian Babin, R-Woodville, told the president his executive order was a “step in the right direction” but urged more action.

“There will still be too few jobs for the millions of recently fired workers when regular activity resumes,” the group wrote. “Allowing foreign-born guest workers to fill jobs at a time like this is an injustice against unemployed Americans.”

— Staff Writer Jimmy Daniell Isaac, Digital Editor Scott Brunner and City Editor Belinda McCoy McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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