Dallas County hopes to help the public better understand the continued spread of the coronavirus by providing more data from area hospitals.
Judge Clay Jenkins and health department director Dr. Philip Huang told The Dallas Morning News editorial board Wednesday that the county will begin publishing detailed information about hospital admissions and bed capacity as the state reopens and testing becomes more prevalent.
The county has until recently only reported new cases and deaths, data that critics argue fails to capture the true scope of the threat.
The hospital data — which Huang has sporadically highlighted at news conferences and county meetings but that has not been provided daily — will likely mirror information currently shared by the city of Dallas.
Since the end of March, the city of Dallas has required hospitals within its boundaries to report available hospital beds. The new county data, provided by the North Central Texas Trauma Regional Advisory Council, will cast a wider net. The council is a nonprofit that coordinates health care resources among different agencies.
“It’s our most timely data,” Huang said. Hospitals are reporting these numbers daily, Huang said, while test results are often reported several days after a sample is collected.
Among the new data Dallas County will report are the number of people who visit an emergency room suspected to have COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. On Wednesday, area hospitals reported 409 such visits. A seven-day average trendline, which is included in the report and helps correct reporting irregularities, suggests a similar rate compared to two weeks ago.
Dallas County will soon begin sharing more COVID-19 related data from hospitals. One example of the new data provided to The Dallas Morning News is the daily number of emergency room visits by people who suspect they have COVID-19.(Dallas County )
Because the virus is new, health experts are still gauging which data and models provide the best information to help people understand how it’s spreading. Health experts are more likely to rely on a constellation of indicators rather than one data point.
The hospital data, along with new cases and deaths, which the county still plans to report, will provide the public and policymakers with the most complete picture of the virus’ spread, the officials hope.
It’s unclear how widespread the new virus is, given an untold number of people may be asymptomatic. One federal case study found about 50 percent of residents at a nursing home had COVID-19 but no symptoms, such as a fever or dry cough.
While no data point is perfect, Huang said that health officials should be able to gauge how severe the spread is based on trends in hospital admissions.
The virtual meeting with the editorial board was meant to pitch the county’s color-coded threat system that debuted after Gov. Greg Abbott began reopening the state’s economy.
The current risk level is red, indicating the virus is not controlled and still spreading rapidly through the community. County residents should, according to the guidance, limit activities outside their home as much as possible and avoid dining in restaurants, movie theaters and gyms — all of which are allowed under the governor’s current rules.
Jenkins, who has sparred with Abbott over the state’s response to the coronavirus, said he agreed it was time to begin reopening the economy. However, he would have liked to have gone slower.
“We all agree we want to open the economy,” Jenkins said. “It’s just in what order and at what time.”
Jenkins said he would have liked to have seen a 14-day decline in cases, hospitalizations and deaths as the federal government and local health officials have suggested.
Both he and Huang signaled an openness to reconsider whether a sustained decline will be necessary for them to become more comfortable with reopening more of the economy. If new cases and hospitalizations remain steady for several weeks while movement among residents increases, they could reevaluate.
“We’re not stuck on some arbitrary political solution or static thing,” Jenkins said. “We’re listening to what the science tells us — they’re looking at a novel virus every day and reevaluating.”
Jenkins’ and Huang’s comments coincided with the county releasing new data that showed 185 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 — a one-day drop from Tuesday’s 225 and part of a continued decline in new cases.
“It’ll be a kind of happy story this week as the numbers seem to be going our way,” Jenkins said, adding he’s still worried about a resurgence in cases this summer predicted by epidemiologists at UT-Southwestern.