Herald-Press editorials rarely sing the praises of local officials. Maybe it's too easy to criticize the bad, while neglecting to celebrate the good. Or maybe elected leaders in Anderson County have given us too little cause for applause.
Either way, their handling of COVID-19 over the last two months deserves an overdue salute.
In particular, Mayor Steve Presley, Anderson County Judge Robert Johnston, State Rep. Cody Harris, and state Sen. Robert Nichols have been diligent, wise, and even courageous in mitigating a virus that has killed more than 100,000 Americans, infected nearly 2 million, and brought the U.S. economy practically to its knees.
With Presley's support, Johnston didn't just hand down executive orders from the state, after the county was declared a state of disaster on March 21. Johnston judiciously ordered Anderson County residents, with certain commonsense exceptions, to enter stores one at a time, and required stores to set up designated hours for more vulnerable seniors. (Neither order is now in effect.)
The single-shopper order subjected Johnston to considerable scorn. East Texans don't like government – at any level – telling them what to do. But Johnston and Presley recognized government has a broader responsibility when facing a public heath crisis, and they were willing to take the heat for carrying it out.
Johnston also asked the Texas Department of Health and Human Services in May to conduct two mobile test sites for Anderson County. Nearly 1,200 tests for COVID-19 have been taken in Anderson County, a testing rate that doubles the statewide average.
Local leadership showed its biggest impact, however, in forcing changes in Texas Department of Criminal Justice policies and procedures. Presley was especially outspoken, calling out DCJ for badly mishandling the pandemic, including prisoner transfers weeks after they should have stopped, and spotty and inadequate testing of inmates and employees.
Presley's sometimes caustic comments got the state's attention. Then Harris and Nichols lobbied DCJ to stop prisoner transfers and broaden testing, not only at the Beto Unit in Anderson County but also at prisons statewide.
Nichols has long been one of the legislature's most influential and effective voices. Harris, a freshman legislator, matured quickly in this crisis. Quietly and without fanfare, he kept after prison officials to make necessary changes.
Even with extensive testing and five local prisons, Anderson County has reported, as of Thursday, only 72 confirmed cases of COVID-19 – 33 of which have recovered – with prison employees making up most of them.
No one in Anderson County has died. (A prisoner death at Beto was recorded on a separate DCJ register and not included in the county's official tally.)
In serving their community, these four elected leaders didn't jockey for the limelight. In media interviews, they unfailingly gave credit to others.
The global pandemic has inflicted hardship, suffering, inconvenience, and even death on Texans. In Anderson County, the damage would have been far worse, if four elected officials hadn't stepped up when it mattered most.