The Trump administration does indeed plan to pull its support for two drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites in Dallas County at the end of the month, as Talking Points Memo first reported. But County Judge Clay Jenkins sees an opportunity. The feds have paid for the kits and the testing at offsite labs since the two facilities opened in Red Bird and Victory Park in March. Each began by providing 250 per day and have since grown to 1,000. Demand is high. Waits can be as long as four hours.
That tells Jenkins that the feds have the reagents and the kits necessary for processing these tests. The county is now working with the state and federal government to get the materials directly so they can begin processing locally at Parkland and UT Southwestern, which could cut turnaround down from three to five days to one.
A quick turnaround is key to contact tracing and containment; if you wait too long, people tend to come into contact with more people. The virus is now spreading rapidly throughout Dallas, with daily cases now hovering in the 400s. Hospitalizations in the region are up by 54 percent since June 1. Local public health experts say that an increase in testing is not enough to account for the increase in positive cases and hospitalizations. (For the past month, a low day of testing is about 2,000 total while a high is near 5,000. As has been since the beginning of the pandemic, much of the growth in testing is coming from private labs.)
“Our hope is that we can strike a deal with them to where we use our own vendors but have their support and keep those testing numbers up,” Jenkins said. “We’re asking the feds to support us with reagents and kits so we can run these tests at our own labs faster than they’re being run at the federal labs. So we’re working on that. Nothing to announce yet.”
Parkland and UT Southwestern have the machines to be able to process more than 6,700 tests each day. But they haven’t had the materials to do that. In April, Jenkins began formally requesting the kits and reagents to put those to use. He hasn’t heard anything back.
Since then, the region’s caseload and hospitalizations have skyrocketed. On Tuesday, the state reported 5,489 new cases, the most yet. Dallas County is now adding more than 400 each day—Tuesday brought 445—and watching as hospital occupancy ticks up quickly. Our rolling, seven-day new case average is 414, more than double the 209 we added on June 1. Jenkins said there are more than 470 people hospitalized now; on June 1, it was 250.
There are now more than 1,000 hospitalized with COVID-19 across 19-county region that makes up the North Central Texas Trauma Regional Advisory Council, which reports its data to the state. Most of those are in Dallas, Tarrant, and Collin counties.
“Given how bad it’s going in Texas, hopefully we can keep our testing going in a more flexible way that works better for trying to back this second wave created by the way we reopened,” Jenkins said.
Currently, COVID-19 patients make up between 10 percent and 15 percent of the region’s total of hospitalized patients, according to Dr. Mujeeb Basit, an associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine and Cardiology at UT Southwestern. With the doubling rate of new cases, Basit said his models show that we have about three weeks of hospital capacity before surge plans would be needed.
“The window to intervene is not easy to calculate,” Basit said in a Zoom press conference Monday morning. “This trend is particularly alarming because the interventions we can do with this information is not immediate. If we were to make policy changes today, the impact of those policy changes would not be seen for at least a week.”
He’s talking about physical distancing, mask wearing, and proper hygiene. But analysis of cell phone GPS data by the University of North Texas at Fort Worth shows increased trips to retail outlets and other newly reopened portions of the economy in recent weeks. People are coming into contact with one another, which makes wearing face coverings so important. In Dallas County, about 80 percent of the hospitalizations are essential workers—the construction workers, the people checking you out at the grocery store. Testing early can help prevent exposure to those who can’t work from home.
“Hospitalizations are the tip of the iceberg. Underneath that, out in the community, what you can’t see is a ton of people with COVID,” Jenkins said. “We can ill afford not to do testing.”
Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday said the growth in hospitalizations and new cases were “unacceptable,” but declined to put any orders in place to modify public behavior. He lectured Texans on the need to wear masks, but stopped short of making any sort of statewide order mandating it. He has allowed county judges to order businesses to require masks at the threat of a fine, which Dallas enacted over the weekend.
On Tuesday, he allowed local leaders to ban outdoor events of more than 100 people ahead of the July 4 holiday. By then, UT Southwestern’s modeling shows that our hospitalizations will be 20 percent higher than they are now. Patient data from Dallas, Tarrant, Collin, and Denton counties show that half of all hospitalized patients are now under the age of 50. In June, 60 percent of Dallas County’s cases are among residents who are younger than 40.
So in the midst of all this, the city and the county are losing their federal testing resources. They would have to move anyway; school is scheduled to begin at the Ellis Davis Field House soon, and the American Airlines Center will be in use as well. Jenkins says he’s negotiating new locations for those testing sites nearby, to keep one near downtown and one near southern Dallas. Whether they’ll have the materials to do so is up to the feds.
“They have the kits and reagents and they’re using them right now,” Jenkins says. “Not because the feds aren’t doing a good job, but we have the machines here and we have staff here. We can do it faster.”