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Health Experts Cautiously Optimistic Following Decrease in COVID-19 Rates

Health experts say coronavirus cases are dropping in Dallas County, but don't uncork the champagne just yet.EXPAND
Health experts say coronavirus cases are dropping in Dallas County, but don't uncork the champagne just yet.
Photo by Victor He on Unsplash

Nearly five months have passed since the coronavirus pandemic first hit North Texas and everything is still topsy-turvy. Trying to keep up with the latest developments can give a person whiplash.

Here’s Dallas County in a nutshell today: The daily coronavirus case rate is decreasing.

Monday, Dallas County Health and Human Services reported its lowest number of new coronavirus cases since mid-June. Director Dr. Philip Huang said that he thinks the number can be attributed to continued social distancing and state and local mask mandates.

“It looks like if people do these things that we can slow this down, but it’s going to require everyone continuing,” he said. “We can’t let up.”

Thursday, the county’s health department gave the day a red risk rating, meaning people should stay home. The day before, it had reported an additional 508 cases.

That’s still a lot, but nowhere near as many as the county had witnessed weeks earlier. Huang said that in July, there was an 18-day stretch of 1,000 new daily cases or more.

Dallas’ case count skyrocketed after Memorial Day weekend, causing health experts to warn that another surge could follow July 4. That didn’t happen, Huang said, largely because of local and state mandates.

In June, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins issued an order requiring face coverings; in July, Gov. Greg Abbott did the same statewide. Those mandates, coupled with the scaling back of businesses and closure of bars, have helped the county’s numbers to trend downward, Huang said.

Tarrant, Collin and Denton counties have also seen a decrease in their coronavirus case rates, said Dr. Rajesh Nandy, an associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

Last month, Nandy released a report that indicated the mask ordinances were effective in slowing coronavirus spread. That the trend has continued its downslope is not surprising, he said.

“This is kind of what we expected,” Nandy said. “It’s not like a sharp decline, but it’s a decline nonetheless.”

Things may be looking up, but the numbers still aren’t sterling. Dallas County trails behind Harris for the highest number of cases and deaths statewide, according to The Texas Tribune.

Even still, Huang said that Dallas County’s hospitalization rate has flattened.

Overall, the state’s case rate is faring better than it was in July, according to The Texas Tribune. Texas' number of hospitalizations has also dropped by 1,140 when compared to last week.

Regardless, Abbott’s facing an anemic coronavirus response rating. Last week, the Houston Chronicle reported that 38% of Texans approve of the way he’s handled the pandemic, which is a sharp fall compared with his 61% approval rating in a similar poll in April.

Professor Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, who is the chair of the political science department at the University of North Texas, said the trend doesn’t surprise him. In April, the coronavirus wasn’t nearly as widespread, especially when compared with hard-hit cities like New York.

“I think as the numbers started to increase, people’s anxiety increased,” Eshbaugh-Soha said. “People began to question what Gov. Abbott did in terms of opening [the economy] too early, etc.”

As the coronavirus situation improves, so will the governor’s COVID-19 and overall approval ratings, Eshbaugh-Soha said. Abbott will also have to work to win back some of his base who criticized him for what they viewed as government overreach, he said.

Texas’ high fatality rate may also be hurting Abbott’s approval; more than 20% of the state’s coronavirus deaths occurred within the past week, according to The Texas Tribune.

Nandy said there’s typically a 14-day lag in terms of how fatality numbers track with daily case count data. Once a person tests positive and is admitted to the hospital, it can take days before they succumb to the illness.

Late last month, the state’s health department began tallying fatalities according to death certificates, Nandy said. It had previously relied on each county to report its own numbers. The change means that a day’s count may continue to rise as death certificates trickle in, he said.

As such, Nandy said he’s apprehensive to talk about fatality trends. Overall, though, it’s headed in the right direction, he said.

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“My sense is that we should have already reached the peak in terms of fatality count,” Nandy said.

The state’s current coronavirus data is encouraging, said Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Van Deusen credits the state’s mask mandate, social distancing and regular hand washing with keeping coronavirus transmissions at bay. Texans just need to keep it up, he said, because backsliding could have disastrous consequences.

“I hope people will take this as a sign of encouragement,” he said. “People just need to keep doing what they’re doing to help us all keep things headed in the right direction.”

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