Gatherings of more than 500 people are now banned at least through March 20 in Dallas County as an individual with no travel history is believed to have contracted COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins announced a declaration of local disaster on Thursday night amid the realization that the virus spread to that resident locally.
Jenkins announced five new cases. One person lives in Balch Springs and the others live in the city of Dallas. They include a woman in her 60s and another in her 70s as well as men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. Two are hospitalized and the others are quarantined at their homes. There are now eight total cases in Dallas County.
One of those individuals “has no travel history, domestic or international.”
“This indicates that we have community spread of COVID-19 in Dallas County,” Jenkins said.
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson signed a similar disaster declaration for the city. The full Council will discuss next steps on Wednesday, March 18. While gatherings of 250 are not prohibited, they are discouraged “in the strongest terms possible.” The prohibition does not extend to offices, schools, airports, multiplex movie theaters, malls, grocery stores, or other spaces where people are “not within arm’s length of one another for extended periods.”
Dr. Phil Huang, the county’s director of Health and Human Services, said the move was to protect older residents and those with underlying health conditions as well as to not overrun hospitals and other healthcare providers. Huang noted that recent data shows significant increases in fatalities in those populations. The sick and elderly are asked to avoid groups of 10 or more. But we all have a responsibility to protect ourselves in order to protect them, he said.
“The data are suggesting persons 60 to 69 have a 4 percent death rate; 70 to 79, 8 percent death rate, over 80 even a 15 percent death rate. Persons with pre-existing heart disease (have a) 11 percent death rate, diabetes (patients have a) 7 percent death rate,” Huang said. “So that’s one of the main goals of the social distancing. The other goal is to protect our healthcare system, and to protect the healthcare workers and infrastructure, but to slow this down so our healthcare system isn’t overwhelmed like we’ve seen in some of the other countries.”
Tests for COVID-19 are still not readily available, making it even more important for the county to take these preventive measures. He did not provide a number of total tests given, but said it was likely to be below what is necessary.
“We have not positively tested everyone who has the virus. Although Dallas County has more testing capability than most places in the United States, no one has testing capabilities to get to everyone at this point,” Jenkins said. “That is rapidly improving as commercial labs come online. It is a very serious situation and one that will be getting a lot worse before it gets better, but how well we fare as a community will directly depend on all of us.”
Houses of faith are included in the prohibition. Jenkins says he convened a call with interfaith members of worship, including Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders. He said the ministers were in support of the decision for public health reasons, and he believed members of their religious communities in Dallas County would follow.
“It is a rare situation when in times of crisis the best thing is for people not to come together and comfort one another and pray,” Jenkins said. “I am confident that we’ll have their full support.”
The move comes a day after the city revoked the permits for the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade and block party, which was expected to pack Lower Greenville with up to 125,000 revelers. Anyone who violates the order can be cited, Jenkins said.
“I want everyone to really soberly consider what we’re saying, what we’re asking for and take personal responsibility for your life decisions and help us together stop this outbreak,” he added.
Jenkins said the county sought the declaration in order to ensure that residents followed the rule. He said there is still the belief among some that this is a “hoax.”
“We have a lot of misinformation about this being a hoax, about this is not a serious thing. We have a lot of people in the public who still do not recognize the gravity of this situation,” he said. “I don’t want people to panic, but I do want people to understand it’s a serious situation and we need everyone to play an important role in keeping people safe.”