With schools in action, restaurants open, and COVID-19 fatigue settling in, new COVID-19 cases in Dallas-Fort Worth are on the rise. Projections by UT Southwestern, which have been accurate throughout the year, are predicting a terrifying winter. The latest models show that without a change in the effectiveness of disease abatement efforts, there could be 2,500 new cases each day by January.
DFW’s case increase mimics the national pattern, where cases have increased by 73 percent in the last five weeks, with more than 60,000 new daily cases across the country this week. The U.S. has followed European Union patterns, which has seen a rapid increase in new cases over the last couple weeks. Hospitalizations statewide have risen from fewer than 3,500 in early October to more than 4,500 on Oct. 20.
Last week, Dallas County raised the threat level back to red, advising residents to limit in-person gatherings and avoid anything but essential activities. In North Texas, hospitalizations have risen 77 percent since late September and are now 85 percent higher than in May. In the next two weeks, UTSW says COVID-19 numbers will return to the way they were in early August. In Tarrant County, COVID-19 hospitalizations are higher than in Dallas, even though Tarrant has about 500,000 fewer residents.
There are around 1,400 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in North Texas, representing around 11 percent of total hospitalizations in the region. “We’ve seen about a 40 percent increase in the last two-and-a-half to three weeks. And we continue to increase the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19,” says Steve Love, CEO of the DFW Hospital Council. “We know people are fatigued. We know people want to get back to normal. We know people are doing everything in their power to make things as normal as they can. But we can’t let our guard down; you’ve got to wear your mask, you got to physical distance, you got to try to stay out of large crowds.”
By the end of the month, predictions say there will be 1,000 new cases per day in Dallas County, but further into the winter, the possibilities become more alarming. Right now, physical distancing and other measures are 61 percent effective, according to UTSW. If nothing changes, the model predicts 2,500 new cases by January, but a small improvement to 65 percent effectiveness would mean cases would level off.
“We know what to do to curb the spread of coronavirus: masking and avoiding crowds, six-foot distance and handwashing,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins tweeted this week. “We just need to do it. As we’ve seen before and are about to see again, absent a drastic change in behavior, the numbers go up very rapidly but go down slowly.”
With the holidays approaching, local hospital CEOs are concerned that holiday travel and indoor gatherings could further spike totals. “We’re raising our hand and kind of ringing the bell going, ‘This is getting serious,’” Love says. “We’re back to where we were on the first of August. All of the improvements we had made have gone away now.”
It isn’t all bad news. Love says the hospitals he has spoken with say the seasonal flu totals have been down, perhaps a more masking product than in past years. But as the pandemic lumbers on, hospital leaders are concerned about continued vigilance against the spread of coronavirus. “They’re worried that the behavior may not be now what it was in regard to adherence to prevention measures,” Love says.
If UTSW’s projections are correct, then another economic shutdown could be on the table. Health systems are at risk of being overwhelmed if cases get too high. Still, they risk losing more profitable business if elective procedures are suspended or if people are staying away from the hospital for fear of the virus. “The hospital CEOs understand the economy, and they understand the need for businesses to be open,” Love says. “They’re just saying, ‘Can we figure out a way to coexist with this by doing preventive measures so that we can keep the economy open until we get a vaccine?’”