Think twice when you're within six feet of others. (Photo by Bret Redman)

Public Health

I Don’t Think We Should See Other People

We don't know how bad the spread of coronavirus will be in Dallas. So why push it?

This week is going to move fast. As of this typing, Dallas County has 14 presumed positive cases of COVID-19, the disease created by the novel coronavirus. (Three of those reside out of county, however.) At least one of those contracted it locally, without any travel history whatsoever. That “community spread” means it’s here, and it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. All of those cases cropped up in the last week. On Thursday, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins issued the disaster proclamation that banned gatherings of more than 500 and used strong language to discourage those of 250.

There is a fear that this isn’t far enough, that codifying gatherings of even smaller groups will be necessary to contain this highly contagious virus. Washington D.C. just ordered nightclubs to shut down and suspended bar seating. Dallas County has only tested 59 people as of Saturday night. Jenkins’ comment on Thursday evening has followed me all weekend between the three rooms of my condo and the occasional grocery store visit: “We have not positively tested everyone who has the virus.”

Public health experts will tell you that we need to test those folks to be able to trace the path of the virus and quarantine those who have been exposed. But we can’t because of poor testing capacity.

We have models from countries that are ahead of us. The Washington Post imagines the spread of a similar hypothetical disease with four scenarios: free for all, forced quarantine, moderate social distancing, and extensive social distancing. It was by far the slowest with extensive social distancing.

Every day since Thursday, I’ve been chatting with Dr. Mark Casanova, the president of the Dallas County Medical Society. I thought this Atlantic story about how to social distance was fascinating and useful, and I wanted to do something similar for Dallas. On Thursday, he started with this caveat: “My response to just about anything you’re going to ask me will be an acknowledgement of what we know right now.”

He suggested we all use “situational awareness,” that we stay away from situations where we can’t be further away than six feet from someone. That we wash our hands for 20 seconds (duh). That we avoid touching public surfaces. If we’re sick, stay home. During a panel on COVID-19 held at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science earlier this afternoon, two more public health officials said the same thing. One was Dr. Philip Huang, the head of Dallas County Health and Human Services. The other was Dr. John Carlo, a former president of DCMS who collaborated with the county through the spread of other highly contagious viruses, most notably H1N1.

“When we look at social distancing and what we’re going to have to be doing for an extended period … we know we’re going to be in public settings, you simply can’t avoid those opportunities,” Carlo said. “You’re going to have to go to grocery stores and those kinds of things, but we can be very protective in those situations: hand washing, keeping distance. When you return from those settings, wash your hands. There are things that can be done.”

Can’t do that? Then don’t go. That’s how to protect yourself and still engage with the world around you. He suggested takeout instead of dining in, especially if you’ll be within six feet of your neighbor. Everyone says not to panic and to be smart and we’ll get through this together. And we will. Huang says patients are clear only after they’ve had two negative tests within a 24 hour period. This is a virus with a slow incubation. Carlo says it can take as many as five days, meaning we’ll know a lot more about halfway through this week.

But you see images of people partying in Uptown bars, packing venues in downtown Nashville, waiting in line at New York clubs. New restaurants opened in New Orleans. Today, a friend told me there were 45-plus minute waits for tables at restaurants in Bishop Arts. (Why he was there to tell me such an anecdote is beyond me.)

Those are unnecessary crowds—and then you see the images of DFW Airport and O’Hare, sardine-packed and primed to spread the virus like it’s in a petri dish. We aren’t doing enough.

I think it’s time we all had a hard conversation about where we need to go and what we need to do. Maybe it’s more than behavior modification. It’s inevitable that our local government will do it for us at some point if this thing keeps spreading, and, indeed the Dallas City Council is set to discuss these matters on Wednesday. They’ll be video conferencing, apparently.

So why wait? Order takeout. Buy a gift card to help their cash flow. Maybe work out at home; sweat doesn’t appear to be a way to transmit the virus, but a whole bunch of people have touched that dumbbell. Support your favorite local businesses however you can. Go on a walk. Use our hiking guide to figure out where to go. But please, stay away from others in packed groups. Let’s give ourselves the best chance we can.

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