As COVID Cases Spike & ICU Beds Fill, County Pushes for Stricter Measures

Apply this sign to everything for the rest of the year.
Apply this sign to everything for the rest of the year. Lauren Drewes Daniels
In the Dallas County Commissioners Court meeting last week, County Judge Clay Jenkins advised repeatedly that people not travel for Thanksgiving or even visit other households and stay home with their immediate families. COVID-19 was taking on a grim trend then, and it has grown worse since.

At noon on Nov. 16, Dallas County reported 1,831 additional new positive cases of COVID-19, setting a new record, which was previously broken just two days prior.

“In the last three days, we have seen almost 5,000 cases,” Jenkins said in a press release Monday. “This is indicative of the explosive nature of the spike that we are now in, and it is imperative to public health and our economy that we stop the in-home get-togethers and trips to restaurants and bars that are largely responsible for this spike.”

Last week, 843 of the new cases were school-aged children (5 to 17 years), an increase of 37% from the previous week. Dallas County reports that 10 schools were closed temporarily and moved to online learning.

"It would be incredibly counterproductive to move gatherings from highly regulated businesses like restaurants to unregulated spaces like house parties." – Kelsey Streufert, Texas Restaurant Association

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Also, per a summary from the county, “Of the 9,598 cases requiring hospitalization to date, almost three-quarters (69%) have been under 65 years of age, and over half reported have a chronic health condition.”

The most recent update on the Texas Department of State Health Services website showed that in the 19 counties that make up the North Texas Trauma Service Area E, including Dallas, 93% of ICU beds are occupied. As of today, only 132 ICU beds are available for the more than 8 million people in the area, which includes Dallas, Tarrant, Collin and Denton counties.

Last week, UT Southwestern updated their COVID-19 modeling report, which analyzes compliance of preventive measures and makes predictions based on trends. They’re predicting roughly 2,500 cases a day by Nov. 24.

The report uses Google data that tracks visits to places like grocery stores, parks and retail spaces and time spent at home. Dallas County residents’ compliance level is 56% effective. To significantly decrease the spread of the virus, compliance needs to be closer to 68%.

Jenkins and members of the Dallas County Public Health Committee issued a letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last Friday requesting immediate changes to stop the rapid spread, pointing out that local hospitals are expected to reach a peak of hospitalizations in seven to 10 days (Nov. 20-23), which would “be unbearable for our facilities.”

The letter says the number of Dallas County hospitalizations has increased by 140% since mid-September. Currently, 31% of all ICU patients and 18% of all ventilated patients have tested positive for COVID-19.

In the letter, the committee is asking for a more expansive public mask order and “maintaining current bar closures and close any venues functionally serving as bars, and closing any loopholes permitting bar operations that may have been created by TABC.”

Several bars across the state have managed to reopen as restaurants by taking advantage of loopholes that allow them to become restaurants for licensing purposes if enough of their income comes from food sales rather than alcohol.

Further, the health committee advises the governor to close all indoor dining at restaurants and similar facilities, allowing for only drive-through, curbside pickup options and outdoor dining where 6 feet of separation is possible.

They also suggest limiting all indoor gatherings “both public and private” to no more than 10 people, removing exemptions for sporting events, entertainment, weddings, etc. For outdoor events, if social distancing protocols cannot be enforced, those too should be limited to 10 or fewer as well.

Other restrictions include virtual classes for gyms and fitness centers, 25% capacity for all retail business, 50% capacity for nonessential business and to allow public schools flexibility working with the Texas Education Agency to move to virtual learning after Thanksgiving.

The Dallas County Public Health Committee ended with a plea to consider these actions lest “our healthcare facilities and their ability to appropriately admit and care for COVID-19 patients will break.”

We reached out to the governor’s office for comment but did not get a reply.

In response to Jenkins’ letter, Kelsey Streufert, the vice president of government relations and advocacy for the Texas Restaurant Association, said they believe Abbott has taken the right approach by “creating statewide standards based on the advice of medical experts that contain a mechanism to dial back business capacity, including restaurants, when local hospital resources become strained.”

Streufert says that it’s important for local officials to work directly with businesses to avoid sending mixed messages, “Given that [pandemic] fatigue, it would be incredibly counterproductive to move gatherings from highly regulated businesses like restaurants to unregulated spaces like house parties, which the CDC warned just last week are already an important contributor to the rise in COVID-19 cases.”
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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.