County Judge Clay Jenkins and Dr. Philip Huang, the head of Dallas County Health and Human Services. (Photo courtesy NBC 5's Live Feed)

Coronavirus

Dallas County Stay-at-Home Order Extended to April 30—And We Don’t Know How Far the Virus Has Spread

Testing is still poor, so we don't know where the virus is. Which is why the county extended its shelter in place order.

Editor’s Note: After the meeting, County Judge Clay Jenkins amended the order to extend the shelter-in-place rule only until April 30. Originally, it was set for May 20. The story below has been adjusted.


Dallas County extended its existing disaster declaration until May 20 during its Friday meeting, with its shelter-in-place order lasting through at least April 30. The stay-at-home ruling can be extended if necessary, but County Judge Clay Jenkins wanted Dallas County to work in tandem with the state’s current order, which expires April 30, according to chief of staff Lauren Trimble.

The disaster declaration limits the size of gatherings and the types of businesses that can remain open. Shelter in place requires residents to stay at home except for essential travel.

Yet again, Dallas has established the most stringent rules for its residents of any county in the state of Texas, securing a consensus vote that included Republican County Commissioner J.J. Koch. Expect our neighbors to follow suit, if not the governor. (On Friday, Commissioner John Wiley Price was the only ‘no’ vote, arguing that the economic hardships were hurting his southern Dallas constituents. The Dallas Morning News covered the meeting well.)

Have these measures worked to slow the spread of coronavirus? It’s hard to say. Jenkins hopes it has. At his nightly press conference on Thursday, he noted that the cases confirmed each day—more than 100 on both Wednesday and Thursday, and we learned of another 90 on Friday—are delayed because of the virus’s lengthy incubation time.

“We see the benefit of [staying at home] two weeks later, because the 100 cases that tested positive today, those cases got exposed two weeks ago,” Jenkins said. “So you won’t immediately see the benefit of the whole state being in stay at home and you won’t necessarily see it in a sheer number fashion. The numbers won’t immediately go down. We know we’re at the front of the curve.”

The New York Times published two maps this week that showed the average distance traveled by residents the week of March 23 and tracked the ascending line for total transmissions and death rates. Dallas is indeed at the beginning of the curve, climbing the stairs up to its peak. And who knows where that peak will be?

Jenkins on Thursday night was encouraged by the travel map. North Texas was gray, meaning more people weren’t traveling than in other parts of the state. There are many reasons for this: rural Texans don’t have the luxury of a Kroger at the end of their block or delivery services. They have to move. But Jenkins sees that gray and breathes a bit. He lobbied for extending the shelter-in-place order at the behest of the DFW Hospital Council, which has also advocated for similar statewide policies. They and other experts contend that staying home is the best way not to overrun our hospital systems, giving providers the space to treat all who need it.

So let’s look at that other Times map. Dallas’ cases are doubling every five days. The metro area, which includes Tarrant and Collin counties, has 1,647 cases. Our growth curve is right in the middle of the pack of other cities but pointed upward. We’re steady neighbors with Denver, not nearly as bad as Detroit, but we haven’t started bending like San Jose.

And we really don’t know where the virus is. We can assume a silent spread somewhere. But where? Testing, as it is in every other city and county, is woefully lacking and confusing to track. Dallas County has tested fewer than 3,000 people, combining results from county labs with private ones. Tests are in such short supply that only symptomatic individuals are able to be tested at a drive-thru facility. And we know the virus lingers for days in people before symptoms show up.

Harris County is now tracking suspected COVID-19 cases through the daily census of its hospitals, which are reporting increases in symptoms related to the coronavirus, NBC News reported. That means it’s too late. The disease has progressed and has been spreading through the community.

There are two drive-thru testing facilities in Dallas, one at Ellis Davis Field House in Red Bird and another in a parking lot of the American Airlines Center. They’re each managed by private testing labs (Quest and LabCorp) through contracts with the federal government, not local governments. Totals get tracked in a dashboard, but they aren’t distinguished from the data that gets provided to the city. While the AAC site has tested 2,645 people and Ellis Davis has tested another 1,837, we don’t know how many of those are Dallas residents and how many came from Rockwall or Garland or some other place.

Mayor Eric Johnson announces Dallas’ total testing numbers daily, but those numbers include testing from all private labs. We aren’t privy to demographics about who is getting tested, where they’re getting tested, their ethnicity, or their ZIP code. We know where residents who test positive live. Unfortunately, that still doesn’t give us a full view of the spread of the virus. If you aren’t testing, you aren’t confirming. We do know people are traveling less since the shelter-in-place orders. We do know that we’re at the beginning of the curve. And that’s why it’s so important for everyone to stay home and limit their travel.

Jenkins said he has requested another 400 tests per day, but “that hasn’t really gone anywhere yet. It’s gone as far as I can push it; it’s at the state level. But as far as the feds doing something with it, I just don’t think they have the capacity yet.

“When it comes time to fill a purchase order, we haven’t had any luck with anyone who can actually do that,” Jenkins said.

Which is why the county is making you stay at home until at least April 30. Expect it to go even further.

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