As coronavirus cases rise in Tarrant County near levels that may require a rollback of Governor Abbott’s re-opening allowances, Tarrant County Public Health Director Vinny Taneja has issued a public health warning and new guidance called the “Protect Tarrant County” plan.
The plan includes non-binding guidance for the public at-large, for businesses, and for schools. “We can work together to navigate this surge and protect the community. We are trying to find the right balance,” Taneja stated.
Guidance for the Public
For the public at-large, Taneja issued a stay-at-home advisory. He recommends that people make essential visits only; avoid large indoor or outdoor gatherings; and avoid indoor dining, bars, gyms, and sporting events. He even requested that residents stop attending indoor church services.
“Many of the churches have been leaders and have been demonstrating responsibility in their practices by taking reservations and doing temperature checks,” County Judge Glen Whitley (R) stated. He added that his preference is that churches and civic organizations return to virtual meetings only for the time being.
Whitley added that his priority is to avoid closing businesses. “Before I close businesses, I would rather give a citation for not wearing a mask,” he announced.
To address the “next steps” for Tarrant County, Whitley said he has requested a meeting with Governor Abbott but has received no response yet.
Taneja also reiterated his holiday guidelines recommending a gathering limit to immediate family only.
Guidance for Businesses
Taneja asked businesses to consider proactively cutting capacity. For essential businesses, he suggested a 50 percent limit and for non-essential businesses a 25 percent limit. He urged that establishments “get innovative” and push online business options.
“Restaurants should consider pushing outdoor dining. Bars need to find a safer way or voluntarily close,” he emphasized.
Additionally, Taneja urged businesses to enforce mask requirements on their customers. Tarrant County has had a “health and safety policy” order in place since June that forces businesses to require their customers to wear masks.
Much of the public comment in front of the commissioners court this week focused on opposing the mask order or its extension.
Guidance for Schools
Schools in the area have returned to in-person instruction, but Taneja focused most of his guidance on sporting events and extracurriculars.
He asked schools to consider voluntarily shutting down sporting events or restricting audiences.
For additional screening, Taneja recommended schools consider the rapid tests being made available to schools from the federal government.
To discourage audience members who aren’t wearing masks in the stands at sporting events, Taneja praised some youth associations who force teams whose audience members aren’t masked to forfeit.
Finally, Taneja recommended “highly discouraging and penalizing after school parties” that are being held.
A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study conducted from May through September found that, nationwide, the average weekly positivity rate per 100,000 students was substantially low. Children aged five to 11 featured a 0.02 percent positivity rate, half that of those aged 12 to 17.
But Taneja’s focus here expanded beyond the classroom and beyond schoolchildren.
According to Taneja, Tarrant County cases are surging, with over 7,000 cases reported last week. He emphasized that hospitalizations are increasing, with 16 percent of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients and only 36 ICU beds in the county remain unoccupied. In total, 1,038 beds remain currently available.
According to Abbott’s GA-32 reopening order, if the “trauma service area” of which Tarrant County is a part reaches high hospitalizations, which means it “has had seven consecutive days in which the number of COVID-19 hospitalized patients as a percentage of total hospital capacity exceeds 15 percent,” certain provisions are revised. The trauma service area COVID-19 bed capacity rate has risen up to 13.75 percent as of Tuesday, but has not yet eclipsed 15 percent.
If that threshold is exceeded, capacity limits for many businesses and restaurants roll back to 50 percent from the current 75 percent.
Taneja said his goal is to see the hospitalization rate and test positivity rate return to less than 10 percent.
As part of its effort to lessen hospital stays and clear hospital beds, the JPS Health Network created a COVID-19 Home Monitoring Program. Patients who are candidates for the program are sent home with an at-home oxygen supply and have their oxygen level monitored throughout the day.
The program has proven to be cost-effective by reducing the length of hospital stays and also by increasing the number of available hospital beds.
While at home, patients are contacted at least three times daily to check on their condition.
“There were those who didn’t need much oxygen to keep from being admitted to the hospital and those with the only thing keeping them in hospital was they still needed a little oxygen,” Dr. Steven Davis, pulmonary/critical care physician and Senior Physician Executive of Internal Medicine at JPS said in a press statement.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated from its original version to include the COVID-19 bed capacity rate for the Dallas/Fort Worth trauma service area.
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Kim Roberts is a reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.