Editor’s Note: In the May issue of County Progress, our coverage paid tribute to the strength and steadfastness of our County Judges and Commissioners who are on the frontlines protecting their communities during this unprecedented time. As the pandemic continues, so does our respect and gratitude for our county leaders.
This month as we looked across the state and watched our officials in action, we came across three unique stories in our three different regions.
West Texas: Donley County Judge John Howard, M.D.
County Progress wasn’t the only publication interested in the perspective of Judge Howard. The story of the County Judge who also serves as the county’s only physician drew the interest of the Texas Tribune and the Wall Street Journal, among others. We appreciate Judge Howard for taking the time to visit with us.
Q&A With the County Doctor
CP: What led you to Donley County?
Judge Howard: I came to Donley County 20 years ago when I was looking for a county that needed a doctor. After paying off medical school debt, I volunteered for military service and became a flight surgeon with a Marine Corps fighter attack squadron for over three years on active duty. I thought that would be it; I just wanted an opportunity to serve my country and at the same time fly military jets. But I found that I enjoyed the service and the camaraderie so much that I stayed with the Marines as a reservist for over 20 years, including a tour in Iraq. Following my initial tour on active duty, I went to postgraduate school to earn a doctorate of jurisprudence and a master’s in health administration. When all of that was out of my system, I looked to get back to what I really enjoy – taking care of people. My wife and I wanted to do so where we could raise our family in a community with shared values.
Rural life in Donley County is similar, I think, to most communities in rural West Texas. Life centers around family, church, and school. Farming, ranching, football, and 4-H. Hard work and willingness to help a neighbor. These are the values that attracted us to Donley County and why we remain.
I am so proud of my community’s response to the pandemic. Before it was mandatory, I asked our businesses to adapt, and they all did so willingly and voluntarily. I think everyone wants to do the right thing; they just need to know what that is. While there may be a natural anxiety about what lies ahead, I sense a confidence that working together, we will prevail.
CP: Will you please share your approach to the pandemic response as both a physician and a County Judge?
Judge Howard: My initial response to the pandemic was as a physician. Before public policy demanded disaster declarations and executive orders, we were adapting our practice to prepare for the arrival of the virus in Donley County – which I had deemed to be inevitable. While some practices had decided not to see potentially infected individuals, I realized that our location – an hour from hospitals and other doctors – required us to play a part.
We anticipated the need to isolate potential COVID-19 patients from others and developed protocols to utilize separate entrances, separate exam rooms, and separate times for well and for ill patients. This would reduce cross contamination and reduce the potential for the disease to spread in the clinic. We identified alternate testing resources to ensure timely reports, and at one point we were testing six times the number, per capita, than the state was testing.
Of course, this led us to identify more infected individuals, and at one point, Donley County experienced some notoriety as “the sickest county in Texas.” I tell people we did not have more disease; we had more information. This information in turn facilitated my role as County Judge in guiding policy decisions. And I believe that my position as the only physician in the county provided some credibility to my pronouncements as County Judge.
I hasten to add that my efforts alone would have been insufficient. I have an incredible staff at my clinic who are providing high quality, state-of-the-art care to our community. I am particularly proud that at this time, not one of our staff has been infected as we continue to provide care to all. And I am also blessed to serve alongside the best first responders anywhere. Our sheriff, EMS, and volunteer firefighters are widely recognized for their skill and high standards.
CP: What has been the most challenging aspect of COVID-19 thus far in Donley County?
Judge Howard: The biggest challenge initially was to convince many citizens that this was to become a problem for us as well as for those in urban areas. I believe – and wrote in the paper before it arrived here – that there was a tendency to consider West Texas to be far removed from the problems of urban Texas. I am certain that some felt the virus would never come here. Our testing and the revelation that the virus was indeed in our community led people to follow CDC guidance more seriously and resulted in a cessation of new cases here.
CP: What practical advice can you offer your fellow Judges, considering your unique perspective, as the slow reopening unfolds.
Judge Howard: As Texas reopens, our challenge will be to continue to afford as much protection as possible to those most vulnerable. Our efforts at mitigation thus far have exacted an enormous cost both economically and psychologically. Our lives have been disrupted in a manner we have not previously witnessed. The bottled-up demand to return to normalcy cannot be restrained indefinitely and must be met with consistent messaging. The lessons we have learned about personal and social hygiene must continue to be observed. Ultimately, it is the personal responsibility and civic duty of everyone to contribute to the safety of the most vulnerable.
As leaders we must provide timely and credible information to our constituents. By doing so calmly and decisively, we will instill confidence in our ability to respond to the changes which will be inevitable. And finally, it should be obvious that the virus does not respect jurisdictional boundaries. My view is that our approach should be consistent. As a team, we will gain more yardage if we are all executing the same play. Governor Abbott is the quarterback, and he has called the play.
North & East Texas: Polk County Judge Sydney Brown Murphy
A Disaster Within a Disaster
On April 22, 2020, at approximately 6:15 p.m., a tornado touched down near Onalaska traveling west to east for 25 miles. The storm path was approximately 400-500 yards wide and impacted an estimated 5,500 acres. Some 291 homes were affected, and 46 were destroyed. The tornado caused 33 injuries and three fatalities…A Local State of Disaster was declared, and state assistance was requested. Polk County Emergency Management
Before she went to bed on April 24, Polk County Judge Sydney Brown Murphy, now managing two disasters at once, posted a letter on Facebook at 11:38 p.m. to thank those she described as “Texas Heroes.”
This is my first opportunity to stop and take a deep breath, to ponder the circumstances and the situations (COVID-19 + tornado) that we are experiencing, to evaluate the world around us (which has seriously tilted!) and to express gratitude for the “Texas Can Do Spirit” which has surrounded us since Wednesday evening. Following very closely, in the shadow of the tornado that swept across Polk County ripping everything that was in its path, came fellow Texans! These “Texas Heroes” came in all sizes, shapes, skill levels, and forms.
Some came with chain saws and others with prayers, some brought brute, physical strength, and others brought soft, kind comfort. Some brought food and water, and others planned for future needs. Everyone in East Texas descended on Polk County, either physically, spiritually, or emotionally – closely followed by everyone else in the State of Texas. Without a doubt, lives were saved and directly impacted by the swift and unwavering determination to provide assistance as quickly as possible. We mourn for those families who lost loved ones, and we celebrate for those who were spared due to the immediate response of others.
State agencies and partners responded immediately to our situation and arrived within hours. We cannot thank everyone enough for the complete outpouring of support for Polk County. We will never be able to adequately express our gratitude to our local agencies and volunteers that regularly respond to every emergency situation, every time, for every person. You are all truly “Texas Heroes.”
The days ahead will be very long, and the timeline for recovery will definitely not be easy. Together, we will continue to provide assistance to those who were severely impacted and will move forward rebuilding our communities and continuing the long-held tradition of the “Texas Can Do Spirit.” Hugs and blessings to all the residents of Polk County, and a huge thanks to past, present, and future “Texas Heroes.”
South Texas: Sherrie Branick, wife of Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick
One Disaster After Another
“We really appreciate Jeff Branick for his never-ending leadership while serving us. His should go down in history as the most eventful time in office ever.” Judy Nichols, resident of Jefferson County for over 25 years, successful business owner, posted on Branick’s Facebook page
Messages like the one above warm the heart of Sherrie Branick.
“Whenever we meet someone who has helped us through a disaster – law enforcement or a volunteer or someone who does repairs – as we save their contact information, we put their disaster name underneath,” Sherrie said. “That was Rita. Humberto. That was Ike. That was the ice storm. Harvey. Flood. Imelda. TPC Explosion. Pandemic. Eight different plumbers.”
The last disaster and the current one have especially hit home for the Branick family; one blew out their front door, and the other sent them into quarantine.
An overnight explosion at the TPC Group facility in Port Neches on the eve of Thanksgiving Day last year resulted in mandatory evacuation orders for thousands. The deafening blast threw Sherrie out of her chair. She later penned a letter to the community that paints a vivid picture of how the night unfolded. The following are excerpts from her social media post:
We had just driven in late Tuesday night from a week in College Station at Jeff’s judicial continuing education conference and then a few days at the ranch. Jeff had gone to bed while I was working on finishing pressing estate sale matters. As I was sitting in our den, I heard what I thought was a gunshot and looked up to see our 10-foot, double, 2 ½-inch thick, custom-made patio doors blown in with giant pieces of solid wood splintered everywhere. As I screamed and grabbed my phone trying to call 9-1-1, I ran into the dining room and saw our 10-foot, 2 ½-inch thick FRONT doors also blown out with the linen drapes blowing in the wind. My immediate thoughts were that someone had also shot out the front doors and that Jeff and I were under attack (for what I have no idea – the mind can make pieces fit without reason taking part!)…
After finally realizing there was no shooter, we became aware of the reality of the situation: an explosion approximately ¾ of a mile from our home, and we could see the leaping flames from our backyard! Jeff left for the refinery immediately…
Jeff continued working with the emergency management team, all the state agencies, and Governor Abbott and his office, working tirelessly to keep us all safe and informed…
I’ve said this before during these much-too-often disasters, and I’ll shout it from the rooftops and through our broken windows: Our community is amazing in overcoming adversity!
Sherrie’s husband of 36 years, currently in his 10th year as County Judge, has helped the community through one disaster after another with what Sherrie describes as “a calming presence.”
“He is always transparent and speaks words of truth at all times,” she continued. “He has guided us through an unprecedented number of disasters.”
When it comes to disaster response and recovery, “a Judge’s work is truly 24/7,” Sherrie observed. “Jeff will receive calls and text messages throughout the day and night during a disaster.
“I don’t think that the general public realizes that their County Judges and elected officials don’t get a minute or penny of overtime,” she noted. After the explosion, Jeff did not sleep for three days.
The Coronavirus threw the Branicks another personal curveball early on when Sherrie came down with a fever which eventually reached 104.
Tests were in short supply, and at first Sherrie did not qualify for a Coronavirus screening. As her fever lingered, she tested negative for flu and strep multiple times.
“At this point, we wanted to save our tests for our elderly population,” Sherrie explained. “We didn’t want to take the test away from others.”
When Sherrie did not improve, a group of educated health professionals advised Jeff and Sherrie to be tested.
The couple quarantined while they awaited the results, and Jeff continued to work from home.
As incident commander of the six-county Southeast Texas Regional COVID-19 Emergency Operations Center, Judge Branick had been on the news multiple times throughout the day reporting from the center. When the couple went into quarantine, Branick shared his family’s circumstances with the public.
“He believes in total transparency,” Sherrie emphasized. “He believed people needed to know why he was not at the command center.”
Judge Branick posted the following on social media on March 22:
“I am at the courthouse in my office preparing amended Emergency Orders that will temporarily close tattoo parlors, beauty salons, barber shops, massage parlors, and nail salons. The new Order will also limit access to the courthouse and other county buildings which will remain open with limited access by the public.
During the early morning hours, Sherrie and I spent four hours in a local hospital emergency room because she is exhibiting the symptoms of COVID-19. Although her blood work is good and her lung X-ray is clear, she has a fever and dry cough and tested negative for flu and strep. Because of that, I will be leaving the courthouse (I am currently on the 4th floor isolated from the EOC on the first floor) and will be fulfilling my Incident Command duties from home via telecomputing until we can get Sherrie’s test results. I will remain in constant contact with my Emergency Management Coordinator, the other County Judges on our team, and the city emergency management personnel manning our EOC. I cannot put them at risk of infection at such a critical time.
Jeff and Sherrie tested negative for the virus, and Judge Branick returned to the command center.
Throughout the pandemic, Sherrie has used social media to share encouraging words and thank those on the frontlines including doctors, nurses, and medical staff, along with her favorite Judge: “I’m giving a big shout out to my superhero: my amazing husband who did a wonderful job taking care of me while still running the county from our home.”