Dallas County is expected to announce four new COVID-19 testing sites as part of a new partnership between the county and Walmart, County Judge Clay Jenkins said Monday.
The sites will be placed in areas with residents who are the most vulnerable to coronavirus, Jenkins said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. He added that one of the four sites could be in Rowlett.
Jenkins did not provide further details or information on when an announcement would be made.
The county currently has two public drive-thru testing sites at American Airlines Center in Parking Lot E and at Ellis Davis Field House. To meet the criteria for testing, patients must meet one of the following conditions: have a temperature of 99.6 or higher and shortness of breath or cough; be older than 65 or with chronic health issues; work as a first responder, DART driver, health care worker, or grocery store and essential retail employee.
The county is working to identify and isolate cases faster in vulnerable communities, Jenkins said.
“They’re not always just in places that you would think of as high-need places. … You wouldn’t normally think of Rowlett as a place with high uninsured or with vulnerable populations, but I guess that they’re far enough away and there are different reasons why that makes sense to put one there.”
Sitting in the backyard of his home, the county’s top elected official answered questions submitted by readers during an interview with News’ reporter Nic Garcia on Monday. Jenkins spoke about the difficulty of procuring testing and reporting results, health care disparities and the state’s plan to reopen the economy.
Read the full transcript of the interview here and watch a video of the interview here.
One significant need the county has discovered is addressing health disparities in vulnerable populations.
Officials are looking at how to provide assistance with rent, mortgages, child care and back payment for restaurant workers and barbers — all factors that play into the county’s long-term plan to address health care deserts and communities that have been disproportionately affected.
Jenkins hopes the partnership with Walmart will also address testing issues in those communities.
“I’ll use the analogy of a burglar,” Jenkins said. “You don’t want to go to where the burglar was last night as much as we want to go to where the burglar will strike next. So, for instance, even though less than 300 of our over 4,000 cases of coronavirus are in nursing homes, nursing homes have accounted for 40 percent of the deaths.”
In response, the county has sent units from Parkland into nursing homes to identify and isolate cases faster.
That plan to address disparities includes working in tandem with the Dallas Independent School District and the city of Dallas to expand broadband access and improve services so people making under $20 an hour who live in areas with poor broadband can continue to work from home if needed.
Relaxing the measures
Friday marked the beginning of Phase I of Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to reopen the state’s economy. The order allows restaurants, movie theaters and some retailers to operate at 25% capacity.
Bars, gyms, public swimming pools, bowling alleys, video arcades, massage parlors, tattoo studios, piercing studios and cosmetology salons are not yet allowed to operate.
When asked how he believed North Texans handled the first weekend of reopening and the loosening of social distancing guidelines, Jenkins praised residents.
“Most North Texans are making some really good decisions,” he said. “Simply because something can be opened it doesn’t mean North Texans are opening those things. And even when something is open, I think North Texans are making good decisions on staying safe and avoiding those unnecessary trips.”
A spike in cases
Dallas County has seen a recent spike in cases of COVID-19. On Monday, the county reported 237 new confirmed cases, a single-day high. Three more deaths were also reported, bringing the total to 114.
Jenkins provided context for the record-high number: “The doctors think that there was a loosening of personal decisions around Easter and Passover where people got together as families.”
He cited the governor’s plan to reopen the state’s economy, saying that the move sent “a signal” to Texans to loosen their own restrictions.
Jenkins also referenced a Dallas Morning News-University of Texas at Tyler poll.
Before the state’s partial reopening, about 46% of Texans were comfortable going to the homes of relatives and close friends. That number increased to 52% as more businesses began to open across the state.
“We’ve seen more movement over the last week, not only in the open businesses but in the unopened. … People have said, ‘Well, if that’s open, it might be OK for me to do this thing.’ And of course, the more you have movement, the more we bump into each other and the more likely a spread is,” Jenkins said.
He disagreed with assertions that the increase in cases was due to more testing.
“We don’t have complete visibility into what’s happening at Quest or other [private] labs — but on the government side, we have about the same amount of tests we’ve had for the last 10 days,” he said.
Ultimately, Jenkins indicated that returning to a level of normalcy will take time. He offered praise — and some caution for North Texans.
“You have been incredible. You have stepped up to the challenge. You’ve made those good choices. …. You’re a big reason why we’re having success right now,” he said.
“But just like a golf shot — or baking — if you rush it, you ruin it.”
As the state moves into unknown territory in the fight against COVID-19, the county’s approach has changed as well. There’s now a move to synergize the data being collected, Jenkins says.
He believes testing and case counts are things people will continue to question the validity of, but experts are focusing on factors such as hospitalizations and ER visits.
A Public Health Committee made up of epidemiologists, infectious disease experts and public health officials created a set of metrics, including the number of ER visits, hospitalizations and ICU admissions.
“And so those experts have come together and they come up with metrics based on the governor’s talking points,” Jenkins said. “And they’ve done that in a way that tracks the CDC. And they’re talking to the other large urban areas who are also likely to agree on that.”
The information available has changed significantly, and with it, so have experts’ perspective. When asked if he had any regrets about early predictions regarding the virus’s impact on North Texas, Jenkins said he believes he made the best decisions he could.
“The medical models are better today than they were on March 22, and they’ll be a quantum leap better on June 4 than they are on May 4,” Jenkins said, defending his position. “We acted aggressively and decisively to put in place a safer-at-home structure that has left North Texas in a better position than almost any other metro area in the United States.”
He added that he hasn’t had much time for introspection.
The bigger picture
“We’re looking at, ‘What does this teach us about the need to improve health care?’ I think probably the most glaring learn from this is that our health care system needs to be modernized. We need to modernize the way we trace diseases,” Jenkins said, adding that 20% of employed North Texans don’t have access to health care.
Jenkins has spoken with U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz to ask for more test kits for UT Southwestern and Parkland hospitals. The county has also appealed to the federal government for relief.
In that regard, Jenkins believes the county may be a victim of its own success for moving aggressively and quickly.
“When compared to Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles — you know, other metro areas, Houston — we are in a better place.”
As a result, he believes, federal resources are going to places that have a more immediate need than North Texas.
Flattening the curve
So what will it take to flatten the curve here?
Officials do have a goal.
“What we’re told is that an encouraging number is around 7% of the tests that you administer being positive. Well, depending on whose numbers you look at, we’re currently at 13 and a half, or 15, or somewhere in between there,” the judge said. “And the number of presumptive tests positive, this isn’t even a number that the county can prove. This is the governor’s number.”
It’s one more reason the county is shifting its focus to other factors to determine whether the curve is being flattened.
“Our doctors are moving towards the admissions in the hospital ICU, ER visits, the things that the CDC is now saying are more accurate,” he said.
Read the full transcription of the interview here.