Dallas Doctors Knock Down Anti-Social Distancing Claims

Stephen Young

There’s an idea that’s been going around among some of Dallas’ conservative politicians over the last month or so that goes something like this: If all flattening the curve does is spread the number of COVID-19 cases over a longer time period, thereby ensuring that the healthcare system isn’t overrun, and our healthcare system is maintaining adequate capacity, why not open things back up and just get it over with?

Dallas City Council member David Blewett has trotted out the idea repeatedly, seemingly whenever he’s gotten a few minutes to question Philip Huang, the head of Dallas County Health and Human Services. Tuesday, JJ Koch, the Dallas County Commissioners Court’s lone Republican, tried to draw water from the same well.

“When you first began speaking about flattening the curve,” Koch told Huang during a Commissioner’s Court meeting Tuesday, “it was everyone’s understanding in this court that there would not be a different amount of infections and there would not be a different amount of deaths — we would spread them out of a longer time in order to avoid the healthcare crash. That was everyone’s understanding. … The area under the curve would be the same.”

“If you didn’t understand (that the number of infections and deaths would stay the same), I don’t know why the hell you’re in charge.” — JJ Koch

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins jumped in to argue that flattening the curve actually does reduce deaths, angering Koch.

“If you didn’t understand (that the number of infections and deaths would stay the same), I don’t know why the hell you’re in charge,” Koch said.

Jenkins and Huang got some help from Mark Casanova, the president of the Dallas County Medical Society, and Robert Haley, a professor of internal medicine and the director of the Division of Epidemiology at UT Southwestern Medical School.

“The statements that were made (in early April about the curve) and even statements we’re making today are factoring in non-variants. We said in early April that ‘If we do X, we predict Y will happen.’ … It is correct to say that, if there’s no other intervention for the foreseeable future, years to come, at the end of the day, at the end of a handful of years that there will be the same number of infections and likely the same number of deaths,” Casanova said. “However, adequately managing this pandemic … can, in fact, result in a lower number of total deaths with the hope that our interventions — social distancing, cloth face coverings and hand-washing — intersect with the development of effective therapeutics and a vaccine.”

Haley said doctors at Parkland Hospital are already learning how to better treat those who come into the hospital with the virus.

“We are preventing deaths now,” Haley said. “Two months ago, the mortality rate for a COVID patient who went on a ventilator was 75% on average … Over the last two months — we just got a report this morning from the Parkland ICU — they have cut down their ventilator mortality rate from 75% down to 25%. They are saving three out of four of those patients rather than one out four.”

Stretching the curve out also increases the chance than an effective drug will be found to combat the virus, Haley said.

“(If you have) a drug that comes on the market quickly,” Haley said, citing the early positive signs from trials of remdesivir, “that makes it where you’re not going to get real sick. … That’s how we would reduce the number of cases by stretching out the curve.”

Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He’s a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.

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