San Antonio’s born and bred Precinct 4 County Commissioner Tommy Calvert discusses a lot of issues related to Bexar County’s pandemic response, how we got here and how things look moving forward. He is candid, honest and open about our successes and failures. Great episode and a must listen if you live in San Antonio or the greater Bexar County.
Justin Hill: Hello in Bienvenidos, San Antonio. Welcome to The Alamo Hour discussing the people, places and passion that make our city. My name is Justin Hill, a local attorney, a proud San Antonion and a keeper of chickens and bees. On The Alamo Hour, you’ll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great and unique and the best-kept secret in Texas. We’re glad that you’re here.
Welcome. Today’s guest on The Alamo Hour for Episode 8 is Precinct 4, Commissioner Tommy Calvert. Tommy, thank you for being here.
Tommy Calvert: Super to be on with you. Congratulations on your show.
Justin: Thank you. This is our first Zoom. Hopefully, it goes well.
Tommy: We’re trying to move everybody into the new century here.
Justin: All right. Tommy has been representing Precinct 4 since 2014. He’s in his second term. He’s been involved in lots of stuff including international policy, antislavery issues. He was recently named top 40 under 40 by the San Antonio Business Journal. In my opinion, I think the most impressive thing about you, Tommy, is your retail politics, what you’re doing for your actual constituents is something you don’t see political leaders do enough of. Hats off to you, man. Seriously, kudos. You do such a good job. I just want you to know that a lot of people notice that.
Tommy: Oh my God, thank you. I couldn’t have done it without my father’s teachings. He deserves the credit.
Justin: Well, hopefully, he’ll listen to this.
Tommy: I’m sure he will.
Justin: [laughs] We have Tommy on here today to talk about a few things. These are one of the things that I don’t know how to do. Are you hearing that, Tommy?
Tommy: I do hear that.
Justin: I don’t know–
Tommy: It was like a light bulb. It’s probably my father saying thank you.
Justin: [laughs] We might just be dealing with that some today since this is Zoom and I don’t know how to turn off that stuff. We have Tommy on here today to talk about a few things. The elephant in the room is your work and the County’s work as it relates to this pandemic response. I want to talk to you a little bit about a few things. We are going to talk about the response, the science, the expectations of people in San Antonio, what resources are available and then not gloom and doom, I want to talk to you a little bit about what’s next for the County and San Antonio moving forward because this isn’t a forever thing but this is a really tragic, heavy, bad thing right now. All right?
Tommy: Sure. I’m ready whenever you’re ready.
Justin: All right. We’ve been doing this with everybody who comes on the show so far is talking a little bit about a top 10, a little color commentary and I’ve changed it for you a little bit because I realize you’re in a different position. How are you spending your time decompressing right now?
Tommy: There’s not a lot of time to decompress because we have an emergency. I’m like a general in a war zone and it’s a seven-day a week and it’s first thing 5:00 AM to midnight hours for us right now. I will get to work out maybe two or three times a week. I’ll decompress that way. We have just family. We might have a couple tequila shots and some beer on Friday and Saturday night and just decompress as best as you can. That’s not a lot. I’ve been to a park and walked. I’ve got a five-mile walk in one day but that’s about it. Everything’s closed. A decompression might be a drive to the store out of the house because you’re in the house so much. Maybe a drive to the courthouse office or something like that. That’s a way to get my mind off of things or dropping things off [crosstalk]
Justin: Not enough. No matter what. Not enough of it.
Tommy: No. I’ve read a little bit of the Bible from time to time. I’ll read Exodus since it is Passover today. I’ll read a little bit tonight. We’ll have a Passover Seder tonight at my house.
Justin: Who will be there? Family?
Tommy: Yes, family and then my Jewish brother, Aaron Chasen Cohen. He’s a Cohen. That’s the high priest class of the Jewish faith. He will lead it. His girlfriend will be here and some other friends. We will have a Seder tonight. I’m looking forward to. I found out of my Ancestry.com I’m 1% Jewish.
Justin: Fair enough. [laughs]
Tommy: Rabbi block let me in the services and I’m loving it.
Justin: [laughs] All right. That’s going to go to my last question but we’re not going to skip ahead. Are you listening to any– You’re driving all around the county. I’ve watched your social media and your YouTube videos. Any go-to music or podcasts you’ve been following?
Tommy: Right now, it’s really all news all the time because every hour is very different. I’m listening to a lot of news whether it’s in NBPR, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, Local News. I’ve done a couple of music videos because of my radio station KROB but I have never collaborated with Drake until several hours ago. I was in Jose Hoffman from a typical Mexican restaurant. He had a videographer make a music video of us giving away enchilada platters to God’s Plan and Drake . I’ve been listening to Drake’s God’s Plan lately.
Justin: Did Drake give you a license for this or you’re just hoping for the best?
Tommy: Look, lawyer, stop your nonsense, he gave away 750 enchilada plates. That’s a good deed.
Justin: I’m sure he’ll let it slide.
Tommy: He said he doesn’t have it and I don’t condone it. Don’t sue me, Drake or [unintelligible 00:05:30]Records, whoever.
Justin: Maybe that answers the next question. You had a whole video on YouTube about ordering local, buying local, help support local. What are some of the restaurants and businesses there you go that you’ve been going to? I’m going to get it wrong. I saw it but I can’t remember the name.
Tommy: It’s TexaCola. It’s Southside Craft Soda. Brother Anguiano really lit a fire under my rear end. I, of course, reached out to our mutual friend Jodie Newman and Steve just to see did they have any of their restaurants open. [unintelligible 00:06:03] there aren’t a whole lot but then you can always go to the Grub Hubs and things like– I had to figure out what was open. I went down the Tito’s Mexican restaurant. I’ve been just trying to spread the love as many places as I can, but really for my own health and just because I am in such a busy schedule where I don’t necessarily have time to go out a lot of places, I’ve actually been cooking a lot here at the house and meal prepping. We’ve been doing a lot of that.
Justin: We had a group called Catalina Produce who dropped off. It had to be 10 or 15 pounds of produce, delivery and everything and we had to cook [crosstalk]. It was great.
Tommy: Yes. There’s a lot of great options for folks. You’ve got everything from American Express with the small business centers that they offer online. We’re putting some lists together on Bear County. Thanks to Brother Anguiano from Southside Craft soda raising the awareness. I’m trying to get our county institutions to do things like purchase his soda whether it’s a university houses.
And we’re not really operating our cafeteria very much at the courthouse right now because of the real decline in the way the courts are operating and just there’s not a lot of people really. A lot of us are working from home but we’re doing what we can.
Justin: We are. We’re doing the same thing in my house and doing the best but it’s a weird mix. You don’t want too much interaction but at the same time, you want to support. We’re doing that every other day. We’re cooking. Every other day we’re ordering out.
Tommy: Keeping it real. That’s what’s going on.
Justin: What is your precinct? You explained it to me one time and it’s gigantic. Just give us a general geographic location.
Tommy: It’s God’s country and we represent-
Justin: Better be.
Tommy: -all the great things that really make up Texas. My precinct is bigger than major cities like Milwaukee. It has half a million people in it. It’s downtown and the Alamo, it goes west to [unintelligible 00:07:59] and Hildebrand by Chris Madrids. It’s South East Brooks City base and the Pecan Valley and Elmendorf and beyond as if you’re going into the Eagle Ford Shale down 37. It’s the east side and going all the way down IH-10 as if you’re going to Houston. It’s the northeast side. It’s [unintelligible 00:08:16] and Lookout Road and Selma, Universal City, Live Oak shorts, Windcrest, Converse, Kirby, all of those northeast cities. About the 12 cities, half a million folks.
It’s the most diverse precinct so we have, like I said, the pearl and we have great poverty and great opportunity as well. Of course, the new challenges of the economy coming out. I’m not sure everybody is truly pivoted to the before coronavirus and after coronavirus understanding yet but I don’t think this is going to be gone any short of two years. The president’s own memos indicate it’s an 18-month situation and most scientists and people who deal in disease, infectious disease, recognize that the virus will probably come back in the fall again.
It could come back worse than it is now. That’s what the flu and things like that do. They actually come back a second cycle after their first cycle even worse. We have to remember that this particular disease has mutated like eight or nine times. Right?
Justin: Yes, seven or eight.
Tommy: Even if we get a vaccine it may mutate in the time that the vaccine is created and then once you get the vaccine, think about how long it’ll take the world to actually receive it. It’ll take years. This is a life-changer. We’re in a disaster economy and we’re in it for years because as a guy with an economics background, there’s not a lot that the government can do other than maintain basic bills. Just basically pay people’s minimum sustenance because normally when you have stimulus and things like that, you can stimulate the economy, but if you literally can’t get out because of a health issue of the disease to work, the only thing the federal government can do is to print money, like only, it can do states. Local entities cannot print their own money and help just maintain, I would call it a reset. It’s a flatline kind of economy. I’m not sure you knew but I think–
Justin: It’s a great point. Even if there’s a million jobs, a million healthy people can’t work in them because you can’t get out of your house.
Tommy: Well, and it’s worldwide.
Justin: Yes. No, that’s right.
Tommy: It’s all over the world.
Justin: We’re going to get into this a little more in-depth, but I wanted to have you run through real quick. You’ve been appointed co-chair of the social services COVID-19 Community Action Working Group which apparently it looks like a mix of city and county elected officials, some citizens, but it’s a pretty high powered group of people. What is the role of the Community Action Working Group?
Tommy: There’s actually more community citizens on it. It’s just that the elected officials are chairing it except the philanthropy committee. Social services, in particular, is really, I think the frontline of what we have to deal with. It’s a broad enough subject matter talking about nonprofit social services that we can dabble into what we want, but there are other committees that are dealing with the frontline issue, which is food security or food insecurity. Let me tell you, there is a huge amount of food insecurity in San Antonio. If you look at the statistics in Texas, San Antonio of the six major cities actually is going to receive the most stimulus checks, the most qualified people because of the big cities not in terms of [crosstalk].
Justin: Per capita.
Tommy: Per capita. Because the wages are higher in other cities around the state. Our wages, you can’t make more than, I think $150 or $140 or something like that. We’re going to receive a lot of those checks. People are living paycheck to paycheck, and if we’re at 10% unemployment now, by the time “this” clears up for a short-term in late June, mid-July, we’ll probably be at 30% unemployment at that point.
We will be in depression era times and so the Social Service Committee is looking at everything from how do we get senior citizens who cannot go to a food bank distribution, who are not on a Meals on Wheels list,how do we make sure they’re taken care of and the variety of needs dealing with staying aware of information because they may not be technologically savvy. Family are told, “You can’t go visit them or else you might make them sick.” It’s some very complicated issues. How we deal with domestic violence, runaways because you and I are both getting amber alerts on our phones with children abducted.
Justin: Got one this morning.
Tommy: Exactly, I got one. We all got it. When people have to stay in domestic situations that they don’t want to be in, obviously those situations happen, so domestic violence is probably going to increase 30%. What that means is human trafficking is going to increase 30% because people run away from the domestic situations and they become poached by pimps and traffickers. The organized crime networks want to focus on trafficking because they can’t get some of the supplies across the border because of the closing of the transportation routes so they’re going to start getting into selling of commercial sex, exploitation.
We’re looking at everything from the fact that the schoolchildren in this city don’t have access to internet. We have areas, I’m sure it’s quite frankly, that don’t have internet. I have large parts of my precinct that are rural in the east-central area and beyond that don’t have a good internet connection. They’re basically using satellite stuff, and it’s very slow. How do you communicate with your teacher if you’re poor and don’t have internet? All those kinds of things are really major obstacles. What happens to the kids long-term when they don’t really have the interaction with the teacher? Do schools need to be year-round? I think they do at this point.
One of the superintendents told me, “Well, we can’t make school year-round because people have vacations planned.” I’m thinking, I don’t think he understands a lot of hotels are going to die. A lot of air routes are not going to be available. It’s not going to be a lot of vacationing. People are still going to be concerned about their health in getting on a plane which is almost a sentence to get COVID-19 right now. We’re told not to, so it’s going to take a little while before all that gets back into motion where our plane routes have been cut in half in San Antonio.
We’re looking at how do we use CPS Energy’s dark fiber, fiber they’re not using to be hooked up so that we have internet because we probably have– I’m a dork that looks at spatial maps. I looked at the spatial map of 40 of the largest cities in the United States and San Antonio had the lowest internet usage. In the east, south and west sides, only 25% to 40% of the households have internet. North sides, 80%, 90%, 100% of the census tracks, so have a huge digital divide that’s going to be a problem in a world where people are going on Zoom and all this other digital stuff.
There’s tremendous issues before the Social Service Committee. We’re prioritizing those, but at the same time, this is very important. What I’m encouraging our committee to do is we can’t let the other nonprofits die. Just because we’re prioritizing the stimulus funding the people feeding and sheltering, people have to go first, doesn’t mean that with the increased capacity to feed, while volunteers are down to the food bank, because people are concerned about their health because there are a lot of seniors who volunteer at the food bank, and that’s understandable, they should be concerned.
Why not use the workers from those other nonprofits to help and hire them from the stimulus funds to serve food or to help with the epidemiological fight or the hotlines when you want to call in and you want to get an appointment for a test and the line is busy, why not hire more people from the other nonprofits demand those lines, or the food service workers to take the food to the senior citizens as a job from the stimulus?
What I’m trying to get people to understand is, it’s like a war. When we went through World War II, the men went to war and the women got into the manufacturing. They made the airplanes and the bombs and everything. I just don’t hear a lot of that thinking from the president even to our local elected. That’s really what we need to do.
Justin: You hit on a point that I really never thought about, but the digital divide now becomes a debate of– Forever, it was honestly couched in, “Oh, that’s a luxury.” Now, it’s a necessity. Now you’re depriving people of education, the same people that– A lot of people rolled their eyes when they said, “There’s a digital divide. This part of town can’t get on the internet,” and people are thinking, “Okay, you can’t search Google.” Well, now they can’t get an education. It’s a really good point. When you talk about the dark lines from CPS, is that capacity that is there but just not hooked up or it would be easy to create capacity?
Tommy: Yes. They have the capacity to do it everywhere. What they claim they don’t have is the ability to do the last little connection part and so we’re going to find out what does that cost? Do we need to ask for it in the stimulus or is there a private partnership that could be put together to make that happen. It’s there. It’s sitting there. It’s latent. Someone from the city told me, “Well, we’re giving out these mobile hotspots.” I said to them, “Do you think the manufacturer of mobile hotspots expected to have mobile hotspots for every schoolchild in Bexar County produced and manufactured, and by the way, the rest of the country because they all have the same problem?” I don’t think so. You better think about a different idea than a mobile hotspot.
Justin: Tommy, what are you doing to stay safe? You’re out and about. I’ve seen it. What are the precautions you’re taking to make sure that you keep yourself safe?
Tommy: Probably four or five weeks ago. Well, actually starting almost February 1st, I began to prepare my staff for what was to come. February 1st was the date in which I was first told. In about ten o’clock at night on a Saturday night, we were going to be receiving folks off the ship for coronavirus so I began to get food in order. We have a lot of medicine. We have probably about $6,000 in medicine, masks, food, gloves that I got way before everybody realized this was serious. Because I worked in disasters and war zones as you said, in my earlier introduction, I knew this was coming.
The second thing is I stopped basically meeting one-on-one with people almost five weeks ago. I stopped my in-person meetings because I do 2,000 to 3,000 meetings a year and I’m very susceptible to getting impacted. I wear a mask, I wear gloves, even at the store. I’ve been doing that before it was advised to do that probably a month ago. I had advisors that told me that’s what’s going to happen, and that’s what we need to start doing. I started doing that pretty early.
I bought Airborne many weeks ago, many months ago now, and so I take a multivitamin Opti-men, I take Airborne, I take my Glucosamine , I take my turmeric, I take my blood pressure medicine, I take all kinds of stuff and just make sure that my nutrient load is good and of course I said I have a balance between eating out where I potentially expose myself and most meals are probably in.
Justin: Keeping your immune system up. [crosstalk] I had tacos yesterday and they were fantastic, from Meadow, I had never been there. I had never even heard of it either.
Tommy: Where is that?
Justin: It’s Artisans-Alley I think off of Bitters, but they delivered anything within seven miles.
Tommy: It’s precinct three and I always stay in God’s country.
Justin: All right. I’m right outside of yours. Keeping your immune system up, gloves, mask, washing your hands. Are we as a county recommending masks at this point?
Tommy: Yes. We just this week decided to go ahead and follow suit with that recommendation.
Justin: Okay. Tommy, you were born and raised here, right in San Antonio?
Tommy: Yes, I was and the Southeast part of my precinct off a WWY and Martin Luther King, right were freedom bridge is, where the march starts every year, that’s where I was born. Then I was raised between West French and AltaVista, the Northeast side off of Perrin Beitel and the East side off again.
Justin: All over.
Tommy: I was, I’m a homeboy all over my precinct. That’s what got me elected. I would go over to Windcrest. I’d be like, “I used to do my music lessons at [unintelligible 00:21:34] music.” They were like, “Oh, this is a homeboy. He remembers [unintelligible 00:21:37] music.”
Justin: Do you know Leon [unintelligible 00:21:39]?
Tommy: I didn’t know I was a kid. I didn’t know Leon.
Justin: That’s Alex [unintelligible 00:21:44] brother-in-law is Leon [unintelligible 00:21:46]. His dad was the one that had the music store. I never knew anybody else that knew it except for Leon had told me about that.
Tommy: I went to school with– I think I’ve told you I went to school with Alex and his sister was in my class. [unintelligible 00:21:59].
Justin: [chuckles] Wait, that’s a different story. Last question on this random question list. What is your two go to sources for information on COVID and what’s going on? What are your top sources?
Tommy: I look at the World Health Organization. I look at the CDC, I look at Dr. Bergen’s work. The other epidemiologist, [unintelligible 00:22:25] Greene, of course, mainstream news sources, your ABC and CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, those were just some of them. Then a lot of people send me medium, but I don’t read medium, but they’ll send me a medium and sometimes those long-form are good and then most times I’m always reading with a critical eye.
If I don’t know the source, it’s not a good source that I’m used to then I’m going to have a little bit of a critical eye to it and so, of course, it’s editorial and commentary from people who contribute and sometimes I gleaned some good things and sometimes I can write back the person who sent me that long article. I say, “Well, I think they’re right about this and they’re wrong about this. I think this is their agenda and this is why,” and things like that.
That was one of the things when I was in orientation as a freshman in college at the library, the librarian said, “You must know how to decipher between good information. That’s very important and leaders making calls, it’s not that you know everything, but it’s what do you do when you’re given bad information and how do you get good information? You need to know how to get good information.”
Justin: Except for on medium when it comes to Dr. [unintelligible 00:23:38] Greene who’s been a guest on the show, her stuff is impeccable.
Tommy: It’s solid, it is. I don’t have any disagreements with anything she’s ever written.
Justin: I want to walk through this a little bit with you. We’re an hour-long show. We’ve got 40 minutes left, so we’re going to let it go where it goes but you were one of the first movers and voices for this community on COVID-19, especially whenever they started bringing people to San Antonio. I was sitting there and let me tell you my reaction, first this has to be military related I guess because it’s going to Lackland and then why is this ending up in university or Methodist, I can’t remember where they went, instead of military hospitals.
Why was San Antonio used as a way station, a stop point for people being brought back into the country with COVID and why were our county and city and local facilities the go-to stop for their medical care? Has there been discussion with the feds? Had they explained to you all what they were thinking or what they were doing?
Tommy: Do you drink whiskey?
I’ll tell you the real answer over whiskey. All right anyway.
Justin: What’s the official answer?
Tommy: Let’s get back to the political answer. I don’t know, I felt that the way it was set up was a mistake. I said so behind the scenes before the public knows it, like I said, I was watching Saturday Night Live and it came across my email from the CEO of University Health System or Cal Coleman, our emergency services director I can’t remember which one that we were going to be receiving folks from the ship. And I said, “Hey, I want to make sure that they’re not going to University Health System with coronavirus.” And I was told that the CDC said they would go to the Galveston, UT medical out in Galveston. I said, okay.
Tommy: That’s fine. I can’t hear you. Were you saying something?
Justin: It’s UTMB in Galveston.
Tommy: That’s it. Thank you. UTMB, that’s right. I said, “Okay that works for me.” Although I was uncomfortable with it coming to Lackland, so that turned out to be a lie. I think structurally the administration set this the absolute worse way that it could ever set it up unless it had some ulterior motive for how it set it up. That is normally in a public health or any kind of an emergency, your local county commissioners are in charge of emergency management and homeland security, but because it’s on a federal military base, that is not possible.
And so as an honorary civilian commander of the 433rd Air Wing of the United States Air Force and the honorary civilian commander of the 12th Flying Wing of the United States Air Force, I know that the hospital at Lackland is specifically set-up for infectious disease, but the administration chose not to have that infectious disease hospital at Lackland utilize for these folks and instead began to renege on its promise to send them to UTMB and began to put them into our hospitals.
First on the north-west side there was a rotation of first was Methodist [unintelligible 00:27:11] the second was Baptist, downtown in my precinct. The third was Christus downtown just adjacent to my precinct line and the fourth was using University Health System that was the rotation.
Justin: How are they rotating them?
Tommy: For capacity’s sake.
Justin: One at time?
Tommy: I’m sorry.
Justin: One at a time, they were rotating them for capacity’s sake? It seems like just a way to spill it everywhere.
Tommy: No, it was in the event that they got ill at from the dorms in Lackland, that was who would take– We always have a coordinating committee of hospital beds called Strack that coordinates, for example, what we call our frequent flyers, people who may be mentally ill or chronically sick and call 911 a lot. We need to know who has the open beds so we coordinate beds.
This was an agreement amongst the health systems. Then they were moved into the Texas Center for Infectious Disease, which I told them early on that they should do first and they instead added in the hospitals and then, of course, the rest became history. I sent in the revised report. It was a mistake. The University Health System, medical employees get hit, have to be quarantined and I got the Xenex robots involved because of the way the pathogen is so sticky, if you will, on different surfaces.
It was very important to me that that we really hit the pathogen hard because human beings miss 50% to 60% of the cleaning because you don’t necessarily clean on papers. How can you clean a paper other than with a UV light, right? And so I was able to get $2 million in robots from Xenex robots and none of the hospital, those hospitals, the County, everybody sat on it, nobody used it and you know what happened? Those robots became used in Italy, in Korea, in Japan and we had to use loaner robots when it hit our system because nobody in the leadership thought we were going to have a problem.
Now we have 500 cases beginning our rise. The months of April and May are going to be very high months. I can tell you last week on Monday there were 150 cases. A week later there were 450 cases. I look back at my congressional town hearing, so just look at what increases we’re having week by week by the time Monday hits. You look at the number from this past Monday to next Monday it’s been a real problem. I don’t think I answered your full question.
Justin: Well, it’s going to go where it goes, how much of that increase do you think is just an increase in that we actually can test more people now?
Tommy: [inaudible 00:30:09] confirmations are going to go up, but if you look at the fact that we’ve only tested nationwide 0.6% of the population. When South Korea was [inaudible 00:30:22] this is where I measure leadership, I think they should change the bar graphs, they have these bar graphs, where it shows number tested per capita. What I would do is actually change it to the head of state for those countries and look at it as a leadership failure because you will see we are dead last. Japan is second, and I believe the Netherlands was third. We’re dead last.
Justin: Third to last and second to last?
Tommy: In testing, yes. This is why this thing is burning out of control. The only reason it’s not gotten worse is the social distancing, and the people just doing a pretty fair job, some better than others.
Justin: What happened to the robots you had donated?
Tommy: Like I said, the $2 million worth of robots were sold around the world, because those communities–
Justin: They were loaners.
Tommy: We used loaner because the way it’s like a loaner car, for these robots they’re $100,000 each. If you buy one, they have a loaner for you in case yours breaks, they’ll send you your loaner. We were using other people’s loaners around the world. It’s a shame because this is when I talk about transitioning into a disaster economy. What I had said is that incentives should be given to companies like Xenex or companies that are doing personal protective equipment to expedite their manufacturing and increase their manufacturing locally because in the future supply chains are going to be down.
We’re making 3D masks for personal protective gear for healthcare workers. Right here we don’t have to manufacture it out of any other country, we are making ventilators that can open our labs that we don’t have to have manufactured in China. That’s a good thing because the actual need when you have shipping restrictions or air restrictions or all those kinds of restrictions is immediate.
Justin: Just for my personal edification, is Xenex locally based? What was the–
Tommy: It is. It was created by one of the founders of Rackspace.
Justin: Also just explain real quick because you’re going to talk about University and we’re probably going to talk about it. University and the County has a special relationship with the university hospital because in Bexar County, University Health Care System and University Hospital, are the county hospital fair?
Tommy: Yes, it’s Bexar County Hospital district.
Justin: Does that mean the County puts money into the hospital?
Tommy: That means it is the counties, I approve their budget, I approve their board. I appoint a [inaudible 00:33:14] member to represent me to help administrate it. County commissioners, in addition to being in charge of Homeland Security emergencies, we’re in charge of the public health system and the mental healthcare system as an arm of state.
Justin: A lot of people probably don’t know that University is actually funded and directed by County.
Tommy: Bexar County Hospital District, which we went to a vote in 1948 to create.
Justin: Okay. All right, let’s talk about the next thing. I talked to you beforehand about who’s given the guidance to the County and how you all are working through the science. Pull the roll back a little bit and let our listeners understand how is the County approaching this? Are you all just listening to the CDC or do you all have a science group and some set of advisors who are advising us specifically based on how Bexar County is responding and Bexar County is reacting?
Tommy: Well, there are very little advisors giving advice on science to the court. In the emergency, the court has given power solely to the County judge and at the city, solely to the mayor. We brought in a consultant who I look at as our czar, Dr. Bergen. She’s only attended one meeting and spoken briefly, she doesn’t regularly advise us, I’d suppose that we can ask for her assistance.
I have been putting together my own kitchen cabinet, and going out into the private sector for additional consultation. I am fortunate that I actually studied epidemiology in college and I studied global health and environment through the Civil Engineering Department at Tufts University in France. I have a very small amount of background in the process and the thinking around epidemiology that gives me some slight more guidance than most elected officials probably.
Justin: Where are leaders getting most of their guidance from then? Everybody can’t be putting together their own working group and in a kitchen cabinet. Is there any centralized group?
Tommy: Not that I’m aware of, those are the things that all elected officials need. I’m scrunching my brow and closing my eyes, because it’s really hard to fathom why things are as disjointed in the information sharing as they are and what is probably the greatest crisis the country has faced since the Civil War.
Justin: Definitely, the greatest in our lifetime. No question about that.
Tommy: We’ve greatest of our lifetime, I’m pretty sure.
Justin: Let’s talk about that a little bit. I want to backtrack, you said that in emergency situations, the mayor has been given the authority on behalf of the city?
Tommy: In our case, the County judge and we supersede the mayor. Remember when Ebola hit Dallas, it wasn’t the mayor of Dallas in charge. It was a County judge. Our County judge has chosen not to take the power that he could, which is to supersede the mayor. He’s working in collaboration and mirroring the mayor. The mayor is in some ways let a little bit more on some of the restrictions.
Justin: This is a government code thing. It’s set up and says in these scenarios, if the governor says X, then here’s who gets the power.
Tommy: Well, if the Commissioner’s court and the council [unintelligible 00:36:45] yes, the governor and all that kind of stuff.
Justin: In emergency situations, here’s our delegating power.
Tommy: We do have the ability as commissioners in council to modify emergency orders. We have to look critically sometimes at those just to make sure that the emergency orders are being administrated in the way that we need them to be.
Justin: Which is what’s happening in Dallas County right now, right? There’s a Commissioner’s court and the County judge. They just had a very public spat over powers under the emergency powers and who’s going to do what now.
Tommy: I didn’t hear that. I’ll have to look into that.
Justin: The Commissioner’s court voted to take a lot of those powers away from County Judge Jenkins up there. Anyway, it’s interesting.
Tommy: I have to take a look at it.
Justin: Let’s talk. Give us a rundown on how the County is doing. Everybody who watches any news source is hearing we’re running out of everything. How are we doing in Bexar County right now? And are there any projections and forecasts when these will start becoming problems?
Tommy: Our Zoom connection broke up. I think you said something about we’re running out of things and is there any forecasts about when there’ll be problems?
Justin: Well, I’m trying to say, how are we doing on resources now from PPE, to beds, to ventilators, and is there a projection of when we think that may become problematic?
Tommy: Horribly in terms of essential workers, I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more of a public appeal for personal protective equipment. Just today, I brought the issue up with the elected officials call and the county manager because my constables we were doing the enchilada platter giveaway. I said to the constable, I said, “Do you have enough PPEs?” He said, “No, we have a little bit, we don’t have enough.”
Yes, there has to be a hierarchy and priority, but I couldn’t get a number as to all right, County manager’s office, what is the total that we need for our people? How much do we have, and how much have we ordered? I recognize we didn’t plan in our budget to have to order a bunch of PPE for government officials across the County clerk’s office and the district clerk’s office and the sheriff’s department. We didn’t account for that in the budget. Just shoot straight with me. They couldn’t shoot straight with me. They couldn’t give me a number. It’s okay that they couldn’t give it to me [inaudible 00:39:15]. Why? Because I didn’t prepare them for that question.
I have a feeling they may not really know. I have a feeling they have made a projection based upon prioritization. Yes, there has to be prioritization, but at the same time, we need to know exactly how short we are. We’re short. I had the CEO of Strack come to my court and say, we look good, and then the next week, I have doctors and nurses calling me and their spouses calling me saying we’re almost out of personal protective equipment, so I go get the 3D printer donations and I get any ISD and other school districts to use their 3D printers to make personal protective gear for the private hospitals. Okay. Two or three Sundays ago, I’ve been asking for data about our ICU, our manned and our nursed ICU because there’s one thing to have ICU beds, it’s another thing to have them manned by people.
Justin: I hope so, yes.
Tommy: Then, I asked about our ventilators and things of that nature. They avoided the question. Then, finally, the public health authority, Dr. Rue said, “We just started keeping it a couple of Sundays ago.” We just started getting our projections together, and now the projections say that our apex will be sometime between the last week of April and the first part of May, or it could be mid-May. We really are just starting to get our extrapolations. We may flatten the curve enough to ride out because of the public distancing. I hope my cries– It’s no joy in getting on people’s rear end about this. I’m just trying to look out for human life. That’s all I’m trying to do.
Justin: Do we have a number on ventilators or is that still an amorphous or figuring out–?
Tommy: We do have a number on ventilators. Ask me another question, I’ll see what I can find you the exact number.
Justin: Have we gotten anywhere close to using the capacity of our ventilators as we sit here today?
Tommy: Well, I think the question also on ventilators is a question of not just the university health system which tends to be the number of ventilators that give us the most as opposed to the whole hospital system. Because if you listen to the doctors and nurses, and we all have friends who are doctors and nurses, about the daily growth in the movement and the personal protective gear, they’re not people that freak out easily, but just listen to them, they’re freaking out. There’s a huge disconnect between the CEOs and the rank and file in the emergency rooms in the hospitals from what I can see in terms of information.
Justin: Is there going to be a centralized location where residents of Bexar County can look and say, “Here’s our ICU capacity and here’s where we’re at. Here’s our ventilator capacity and here’s where we’re at”?
Tommy: Just this week, a couple of days [inaudible 00:42:19] response to an Express-News article that may have hit today or coming out tomorrow or Sunday’s paper, the Express-News was extremely critical of San Antonio’s information because we’ve been giving out less information and skewing information in comparison to other cities. I’ll give you an example. We haven’t been giving out the ICU stuff until this week.
In the report, there is an under investigation number and the community transmission number which Houston combines into both, meaning they assume that that’s COVID-19 until proven otherwise. Most cities do, but we have been trying to tamp down our numbers and downplaying the length of time we’re going to be at this. It’s not good. It’s like the mental effect of giving someone false hope when they are diagnosed with cancer.
If you give them a too rosy of a scenario and you don’t really say this could be a two-year fight, then the letdown and the emotional strain of having to go over and over and then it hits us in the fall and people are like, “Well, I thought you said it was going to go away in the summer?” when we know that The White House’s Dr. Fauci says 18 months, probably coming back in the fall. Why that information isn’t getting out from our chief elected officials is very odd to me.
Justin: As an elected official, is there anything that the county is putting together, an information working group or anything that they are trying to establish to address the lack of information that’s coming out?
Tommy: The fact that I’m going to answer this as “I think so” is an indication of how bad the information sharing is. Just last night, I’ll give you another example, the county judge has a special assistant named Seth Mitchell, who he is brought in and hired to handle most of these inquiries. I had a friend who lost a friend, a nurse, who because she was worried that she had COVID-19, it was going to affect her family. She, in fact, did infect her family.
Her son is in a coma. She died. The whole family has it. Her son in the coma, 14 years old, doesn’t even know his mother’s dead. I asked, “Do we have a hotel space for our health care workers so that they don’t have to go home and infect their families like other cities do?” Like California has that. The answer was very unclear that I got from the special assistant, Seth Mitchell. It was, “The emergency operations command has made a hotel arrangement for this.”
Well, I want to know what it is, and I want to know what that arrangement is so I can communicate it to my community. Part of the reason I want to be able to communicate it is, I happen to represent the African-American community and every community, but they are disproportionately affected by this disease because of underlying health conditions. This is just for anybody in the healthcare industry, we should be putting that out if there are, in fact, three places.
I’m a little skeptical, to be honest with you. I’m willing to raise money because there are discounted hotel rates, but I don’t think a nurse should have to pay for a hotel room while they’re putting their lives on the line. That’s basically all I know, all that I know that we’re doing for them. In terms of how we’re dealing with this, you can sense my frustration. It’s not transparent.
Justin: Yes, and I don’t feel like there’s been an effort from the County to reach it. I think San Antonio is full of loving, wonderful people who want to help. I haven’t seen an ask.
Tommy: That’s correct. There has been no ask.
Justin: Yes. I tell them all. Ask. What’s the need? Ask. People want to help. We have an Airbnb right now that nobody is in. That could be used and we would be happy to allow people to use it, but how or where?
Tommy: Guess what? We could probably get you a reimbursement out of the stimulus funds or an emergency fund at some later point. Right. That would be an expense you would think the federal government would gladly reimburse us for you donating that today. They get some compensation later. I don’t get it. I do not get adjusted in some weird stuff going on.
Justin: No. I’ve had this conversation with multiple people who’ve been on the show. I genuinely want to know what can people do to help, and it’s just, “Do your best.” [chuckles] We don’t have like a centralized location.
Tommy: You and I right now, we can organize folks in Airbnb, and now that you put that in my mind, I think we’ll do that. We will say to the congresspeople, “Hey, this is a good reimbursable expense that healthcare workers don’t go home and re-infect their family. This is for the country that they’re doing this.” They know they can’t rent it out. Everybody knows they can’t rent it out right now, but they could have these folks not make the issue worse.
Justin: Right. Mine’s in your precinct too, just so you know.
Tommy: Thanks for investing in God’s country.
Justin: Yes. You touched on this on one of the– You sent me some YouTube videos and I’d seen most of them anyway, but I watched all of them like I told you I was going to, and you made a comment.
Tommy: Thanks for Facebook stalking me [laughs].
Justin: Well, you told me to. I got to prepare for my interviews.
Tommy: I’m playing. I don’t care.
Justin: I’m an attorney in my normal time when I’m not the world’s best San Antonio podcaster, but in my normal job, I’ve had three nurses from the same hospital system in downtown call me and say, “We’re not allowed to use PPE. We have to ask for it to check it out, and we’ve been told if we go grab any without getting permission, we’ll be fired.” I’ve ran the traps on some of these issues, and really, they have very little legal recourse at this point by being told they can’t use PPE. You said in one of your YouTube videos that people who were being denied PPE should reach out to a– was that the non-emergency line? Did I hear that correctly?
Tommy: Well, I don’t recall exactly in the YouTube video with respect to that. I have said that questions over the emergency order, folks should reach out to the county judge’s office, but I’m going to tell you this. What you just told me is the first time that I have heard that nurses are being told that they cannot use personal protective equipment. I had not heard that.
Justin: I can get you three names.
Tommy: That is outrageous.
Tommy: That, to me, sounds like national news. I have not heard a hospital system anywhere in this pandemic say don’t use personal protective equipment.
Justin: They’re rationing it. They’ve basically told them, “You have to get permission to use it depending on what area you’re going to be treating somebody. Even though you may be in the ER, you’re probably not the person dealing with the potential COVID, so we’re not going to allow it for you.” It was a rationing deal, but they were told there would be consequences if they used it. It was pretty alarming. We got some employment lawyers involved and all that, and there just doesn’t seem to be recourse for these people other than to not go to their job.
Tommy: I get crestfallen when I– My heart drops because this is so bad. Congressman Henry Cuellar pointed out that Governor Abbott had only released about 25% of the stockpile of mass that he had been given and said that you need to give it all out. Congressman Cuellar said that some of his hospital districts in the Valley said they only got enough PPE to put in a back of a trunk. We’re heading into the apex of our increasing numbers, and now is the time to get all of that PPE out.
There are sources around the world that can sell that. I’ve had sources in Germany and you just heard maybe Gavin Newsom. He was able to secure 200,000 pieces of PPE, and he said he used the buying power of California in order to do that and he can supply the Western States, which was a backhand to President Trump to say, “You should have done this for us because if we are the fifth largest economy in the world and the United States is the first largest economy in the world, you could have done this like we did this.”
They had to quietly do that. I have a hard time understanding why a private hospital wouldn’t use some consideration for the fact that they may be reimbursed and lobby that Congress reimburses them in the stimulus packages because that won’t be the last one and get some commitment from the majority leader and the speaker of the house that if they order it from Germany or China or wherever they’re coming from, that they can be reimbursed and that they should just do it.
Justin: If they can find somewhere to do it. I’ve got a buddy that runs some medical clinics and he said for N-95s, he usually paid ¢40 to ¢50 per, and he’s at $5 and $6 per right now.
Tommy: It’s all about leverage. This is where our governor could be helpful, like Governor Newsom was helpful where they have to use their buying power and be smart about it.
Justin: Okay. I want to pivot a little bit because we’ve got 10 minutes or so left. You had town hall via Skype or Zoom, and Representative Castro, Cuellar, you, Judge Wolff, you all talked a little bit about the stimulus bill, but at the time, it sounded like that was before the stimulus bill had passed.
Tommy: No. It was after it passed.
Justin: Okay. There wasn’t really much detailed information about how the SBAs managing this where people can go to the County. Does the County have any resource? Let me say, I applied for the PPP. I’m going through my bank. My bank has a portal. My bank tells me what I need to give them, and it’s been a really easy process for the most part. It hasn’t been–
Tommy: Who do you bank with, if you don’t mind me asking?
Justin: Texas Capital Bank.
Tommy: Okay. Just curious who’s got it easy.
Justin: Yes, so that’s my business bank. It’s been pretty easy. I’ve got an account manager. They’ve told me what documents I’m going to need. I had a hard time. They’re asking for some strange information as to what is your average monthly salary or payroll minus people that get paid this much, but you don’t know [unintelligible 00:53:16] mean up to that much. It’s strange in that my accountant said, my own CPA said, “I’m not 100% sure. Here’s the number I would use.” Is the County providing any– through maybe Launch or SBA or anything like that, do we have any resources for our small business owners up to 500 employees for the PPP that people can turn to?
Tommy: First of all, the federal government– Yes, we do, and I’m going to get to that. In a national emergency, and this is a national emergency, not a local emergency or a state emergency, this is a national emergency, the local governments cannot bail out the economy because we cannot print enough money. The federal government not having administrated the PPP faster is going to be a problem. The Small Business Administration, God bless them, is one of the slowest entities in the federal government.
I questioned whether or not they can truly administrate these things fast. What they should do is a block grant to the states and allow the states to get that money down into other entities that could process this stuff faster than SBA. They might end up doing that once they fumble through this first one because the Trump administration is just not good at administrating, they don’t know how to properly administrate.
That being said, we have the $5.25 million set up from Bexar County to the LiftFund. LiftFund is also formerly known as Accion Texas. The LiftFund is only for $25,000. There was a section that was for grants that’s all been utilized, and there was a section for loans. What I asked for them to do since every taxpayer in the county was paying into it is to make sure each precinct basically had an equal amount of money allocated to it.
What I also want is a spirit of things like the Community Reinvestment Act. We need to make sure every ethnicity is also getting a piece of that pie. I’m a little concerned that that’s not happening. I’ve heard a lot of things from African-American businesses that they’re not getting the LiftFund money. Three of them say they were denied. Now, that may just be based upon their criteria, lack of outreach and those things. I’ll be looking at that very closely, but we have those $25,000 loans now from the county. I think payable over– I just looked at the application. I read the application yesterday. I know the numbers in my head. I’m going to say four years or something like that.
Justin: That’s county money, right?
Tommy: That’s correct.
Justin: If I am a small business owner and I have no idea where to turn, is there any county resources for people to help them get through the PPP, any of the stimulus package, a podcast, or anything where people can go and get additional information? If not, maybe the county can put something together for the small business owners.
Tommy: Well, the first line of offense has to be your congresspeople. Your congresspeople can help you literally get through the bureaucracy of the federal government. The second, obviously, is the treasury department and your senators. We’re happy to help with that, but those are really federal funds. My oversight ability, there is none. It’s a congressperson that really is holding them accountable for the proper administration.
Justin: Your bank, that’s what I did. I went through my bank and they’ve told me exactly what to do. If anybody’s listening, call whoever your bank is or whoever you want your bank to be. Let’s change a little bit. There is going to be another side to this. It’s very scary. It’s very overwhelming. I was talking last night about watching Hoda on the morning show just lose it. She just became overwhelmed. It is overwhelming and you don’t know it’s overwhelming until it hits you.
There is another side of this. The sun’s going to rise. Fiesta is going to happen. We’re going to be a great city we’ve always been. What are your hopes for your precinct and for this city? Let’s not talk about COVID just generally. What do you see for the city? What do you see for the county? You got elected with really high vision and high ambitious goals for the city. What do you want to accomplish here?
Tommy: Well, I hate to [inaudible 00:57:48], but I do not think we will be back the way we were ever again. I do not. We’re facing a complete economic collapse. The Flu of 1918 was the fourth version of that flu. As a history buff, I can tell you that pandemics and wars either precede or come after. World War II, World War I, many, many pandemics have always precede a war. Why is that? Because when you become resource short because of the pandemic, you fight other countries over resources.
We all see, we may have to start protecting the food bank distribution because people are going to get very antsy about the food shortages and the food supply that they can consume. From my perspective, you just have to imagine what will the world be like if when the cold months happen, like Dr. Fauci says, the coronavirus comes back,
and what if as the folks, the scientists from Xenex told me it comes back worse than it did or if it comes back the same, but let’s assume the worst because that’s what we have to plan for.
Let’s assume that that virus begins to re-hit in the cold months, September on the East Coast, October in our part of the country, and extends through June of next year, the collapse of businesses will be tremendous. The only real revenue will again come from spending from government to sustain us, including local government because we’re telling people now, “Don’t worry about paying your taxes.
We’re trying to get rid of the appraisal because we don’t want you getting hit with the January number, 7% to 8% appraisal increase,” but I also told my fellow elected on a call today, I said, “Look, don’t just say zero freeze because if the actual appraisals depreciate, then you need to go with where they depreciate to because nobody can sell,” because you’ll be paying too high of taxes if you just freeze. I think that it’s a two-year battle and I don’t think the world will be the same.
It’s going to take a long time for us to get back. It’s just going to be a different world because think about it this way, the technological evolution, when you have the fear of pandemic, the restaurant worker, their job is taken by a robot because you fear a sneeze in our hamburger. The restaurant owner says, “Look, I need to stay open. I need to make revenue.” Instead of hiring a person to make the burger, I’m just going to use a machine.
What happens to those jobs? The only thing that I’ve been telling people is you need to have the person who’s good with their hands, the mechanic, the plumber type, transition them to repair that robot that makes the quarter pounder with cheese, transition the workers to program on IT jobs and things like that. That’s where we have to get people. I don’t see many politicians talking about– Even before this pandemic hit, I was talking about– I was on the [unintelligible 01:01:37] economic because I think [unintelligible 01:01:40] was right about the economy other than the thousand dollars. I didn’t agree with that, but maybe now, I do.
Justin: His 90-point plan? Yes, it was wonderfully ambitious.
Tommy: I was like, “I’m going to sign up on your internet and get that thousand of dollars on your list.” The only thing I can tell you is, I will be as constructive about solutions in whatever future we have as I think I’ve been throughout this Zoom conference call. I will be able to think it through and provide solutions, but there are so many things we’ve never thought about. Our kids not having access to their teachers, and what does that do for the criminal justice system?
Because one in two people in your Bexar County Jail is a high school dropout. What’s going to happen if we lose the hard kids who were already on the borderline of truancy going to school anyway, and then they don’t get the human teacher keep track of them for a year or two? They’re lost.
Justin: Maybe that is the silver lining. Maybe all of a sudden, now, we limit this digital divide that we had. Maybe all of a sudden, people realize that we can do more distance education in college. Maybe there is a silver lining on the backside of this that has came from necessity.
Tommy: Here is a silver lining. You want me to answer the positive question? What is the positive? The positive is, we are in need of a reset as a human race, to be honest with you. We are completely driven by the wrong things, the love of money. We’re not compassionate towards one another. We’re very complacent. At least in America, we’re complacent. We’ve got to do a lot of things to restore humanity. Period. In as much as humanity and caring for each other is restored, that will be a good thing. The environment. Mother earth is getting a huge–
Justin: A sigh of relief.
Tommy: Yes. I’m happy about that, but how human beings treat each other in disaster– When I worked in Sudan in the war zone, bloody civil war in the 20th century, 2.5 million people died there, I would reunite families. Their 10th cousin would take them. It’s unheard of in America. We don’t do that. Your 10th cousin who– and you are and you want to stay in my–? Sorry. I can get you a Greyhound bus back to wherever you came from. We don’t do that.
In these environments where people lose things and lose things and lose things, I think we’re going to be brought, frankly, back to our knees to realize what is our connectivity to each other, what is our brotherhood and sisterhood to each other. Am I my brother’s keeper? It’s much better when we are than when we’re not.
Justin: I agree. Well, thank you for helping us end on a up note. It’s scary enough out there as it is that a lot of us just really have to think of something positive. There’s got to be something good that comes out of this. It’s what gets people through the day honestly.
Tommy: Humanity’s restoration. I think humanity is very much under attack and it’s up to us to [inaudible 01:05:03] out the lessons. There is always a silver lining and there is a beauty in adversity, but it’s going to be very painful. We can get through it. We can get through it, caring for each other. It’s going to take all of us to care about each other. I hope that I’m wrong about the bleak path.
Justin: I hope you are too.
Tommy: Yes, I really do. I really hope I’m wrong, but the best gift I can give people is the gift of vision and insight. It’s like when I went to school in Boston and I knew I was going into the coldest weather I have ever experienced, I had to go in mentally tough. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have made it through. If I didn’t understand that it’s going to be cold six months, seven months out of the year, I would have been miserable. I’m going to just tell them, “It ought to be like Texas in two months.” It’s not true. Being mentally prepared is very important to being in a disaster.
Justin: Yes. Tommy, thank you very much. Sit tight for a second if you don’t mind. Tommy and I met– I was just thinking it had to be 12 years ago in Costa Rica.
Tommy: It has been a long time.
Justin: It sounds super cool like we were in Costa Rica, but now, we both are on a firm trip for the same guy. That does it for this episode. Thank you, Tommy, for being here. It’s not the most upbeat discussion, but it’s a good discussion that needs to be had and people need to hear it. Our next episode is to be determined. My guest wishlist continues. Robert Rivard has agreed to come on. Now, it’s Coach Pop for two of the spots, as well as Jackie Earle Haley.
Tommy: You do that. You got Coach Pop?
Justin: No, that’s my wishlist. If you can help though, maybe he’d say yes if you asked him.
Tommy: I’ll ask.
Justin: [laughs] All right, that about does it. Hang tight, Tommy, real quick.
Tommy: It’s not beer at TexaCola.
Justin: Thanks for joining us on this episode of The Alamo Hour. You are all what make this city so great. We hope you join us next week. In the meantime, subscribe to our podcast and check us out on Facebook at facebook.com/alamohour, or our website, alamohour.com. Until next time, Viva San Antonio.
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