Mask mandates are slowing the spread of the coronavirus in North Texas, a new report shows.
Dr. Rajesh Nandy, a biostatistics and epidemiology professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, will release the report by Monday. He said his findings indicate that mask mandates are working to prevent new transmissions in the region.
“There is no doubt that this mandate has been effective,” Nandy said. “But that doesn’t mean that it will remain effective, because that will depend on the people — like, how long they will comply.”
The report’s findings are hopeful, but that doesn’t mean the region is out of the woods. In a document prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Dallas and Tarrant counties were deemed “red zones” for COVID-19, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom based in Washington D.C.
Although mask mandates have become increasingly politicized, Nandy said the data objectively proves how essential they are in stopping further spread. North Texans need to remain vigilant in wearing masks, he said, in order to prevent a future surge.
Officials in Dallas and Tarrant counties issued countywide mask mandates in late June. Around that time, Gov. Greg Abbott suggested Texans stay home to prevent community spread, according to The Texas Tribune. He also issued a statewide mask mandate on July 2.
It takes between 10 to 14 days to see the effects of such an order, Nandy said, since coronavirus symptoms can be slow to appear.
The mandates, coupled with a decrease in outings, are likely what led to the report’s positive findings, Nandy said. Even though the case rate has leveled out, that doesn’t mean people should ease up on social distancing, he added.
“We are now again at a plateau, but the level is much higher,” he said. “If there’s another surge, then the hospital systems will definitely be overwhelmed. So it’s very important that we don’t make that happen.”
Dallas County’s ICU capacity was at 87% on Thursday, said Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services. If hospitals were to run out of beds, that could prevent new patients from receiving the proper treatment.
Another danger is that hospitals could face a shortage in health care workers, Huang said. Doctors and nurses have been working at full speed for the last few months, and many could soon become fatigued and need to take time off.
“All of these things are taking a toll on the frontline workers,” Huang said. “They truly are heroes for all of us, but they’re just getting to be burned out. It’s just been relentless for so long.”
Not only that, but health care workers who are exposed to the disease must then quarantine, said Dr. Erin Carlson, an associate clinical professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at the University of Texas at Arlington. Even worse, some eventually become infected themselves.
Another danger arises when hospitals exceed surge capacity, Carlson said. When a hospital reaches surge capacity, it means that it’s implementing an emergency contingency plan to accommodate an influx of patients.
Carlson said a hospital in South Texas recently had to convert a conference room and a closet into part of its ICU unit.
Mask mandates and other preventive measures must be heeded in order to keep North Texas’ hospital systems from collapsing, she added.
“It is critical that we have orders and that we follow them,” Carlson said, "because this is at the point of preventing a really fatal surge.”
Thursday, Dallas County's health department reported an additional 1,027 cases. That number is still high, Nandy said, but it appears that the daily rate’s upward trajectory has been interrupted for now.
Cases in North Texas skyrocketed in mid-June, due in part to Memorial Day weekend get-togethers, Nandy said. That prompted some health experts to warn that July 4 gatherings would cause an even sharper rise.
Luckily, that surge hasn't yet materialized, Nandy said, although doctors may not know for sure for another few days. It can sometimes take weeks to know whether a measure has helped or harmed the coronavirus situation, he said.
That’s why it’s important for people to not let their guard down, Nandy added.
“We have to be extra vigilant,” he said. “If we see things moving in the wrong direction, we have to act very promptly.”
Carlson said that if people remain on their best behavior and follow health experts’ recommendations, the region could bring the disease under control by mid-September.
Otherwise, there’s no telling when North Texas will recover, she said.
“If we change and let up, [the rate is] going to go back up,” Carlson said. “There’s no doubt.”
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