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Public health expert urges caution as COVID-19 numbers rise in Texas

NET Health CEO says people need to maintain precautions as positive tests increase

TYLER, Texas — While more Texans go back to work and go back to their daily routines, more are testing positive for COVID-19.

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, 638 positive viral tests were reported Monday and six people died of COVID-19. Numbers on Mondays are often low compared to other days of the week; the day before, 1,425 positive tests were reported.

Many data points related to the spread of coronavirus in Texas have gotten worse in the last week and a half. The three days with the most cases recorded have all happened since Memorial Day, and the number of daily new cases is trending up. At the same time, the number of people tested each day has stayed relatively flat since mid-May, with viral tests each day hovering between 20,000 and 27,000, though most frequently between 22,000 and 24,000. As part of his “Report to Open Texas,” released April 27, Gov. Greg Abbott set a goal of testing 30,000 people per day, “in the near term,” which has yet to be reached.

Gov. Abbott has stated that a larger number of tests may lead to a larger number of positive results, so the percentage of tests that come back positive, the positivity rate, is an important indicator of the spread of coronavirus. DSHS records it as a seven-day rolling average to account for daily fluctuations. The average hit a low of 4.27 percent of May 26 but has since risen to 7.11 percent.

“I can’t necessarily say I’m surprised,” George Roberts, CEO of NET Health, said Monday. “Again, we know that the virus is still out there, so we know that we’re gonna still see cases popping up in our region.”

The number of patients in the hospital has also steadily increased, with 1,935 active hospitalizations reported Monday, the most of any day during the pandemic.

“I think some of the feedback I’m getting from people,” Roberts mentioned, “is that people think that, well, things are opening up, there’s been issues around the community. Maybe the coronavirus has gone away.”

Roberts said the number of new cases of COVID-19 is increasing in East Texas just as it is statewide. But he said that new outbreaks are not just coming from the traditional hot spots like meatpacking plants, jails, and nursing homes. He stated that they are coming from Memorial Day parties, funerals, and other aspects of daily life.

“I heard about a yoga studio,” he added. “There were some cases that came out of a yoga studio; I’m not sure exactly where that was. We’ve also heard, people in retail outlets, maybe they were exposed in a retail outlet.”

The number of tests conducted per day and the positivity rate were two of the metrics Gov. Abbott said he would consult when making decisions about the reopening the state. Another was hospital capacity, and open beds and ICU space are plentiful in every region of Texas. As of Monday night, the state reported 1,935 patients in hospitals, but 15,070 available beds and 1,619 available ICU beds. With the hospital region that includes Tyler, there are 54 patients hospitalized, 484 available beds, and 63 available ICU beds.

Roberts said contact tracing is an important part of limiting the spread of the virus. By quickly identifying and testing everyone who may have been exposed by each confirmed carrier, medical professionals can isolate those who test positive to prevent further infections.

“Early on, the Smith County, Smith County offered us people from their DA’s office, as well as the Sheriff’s Department,” Roberts stated. “City of Tyler offered us help with folks in their police department and fire department. And then we added folks from our environmental health and our own epidemiologists that helped us with contact tracing.”

Roberts emphasized that thorough and frequent hand-washing, staying six feet apart, and wearing masks in public are just as important today as when coronavirus first reached East Texas.

“Just because we’re opening up, the virus is still among us,” he said. “So we need to maintain those practices that we’ve been talking about for, really, the last couple of months.”

Roberts mentioned that some settings, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, are less likely to result in the spread of infections based on the way customers interact with each other and the space, while other, more social settings pose a greater risk.

“If you’re typically going through the store, like a grocery store or something like that, you typically don’t have--you’re not there long enough, you’re not around somebody,” he explained. “Fifteen minutes is kind of the time that you, we kind of look at are you with somebody within six feet of somebody for a 15-minute time period or breathing the same air?”

Roberts said a walk-in testing clinic will be held in Tyler this weekend, but details have not been finalized.

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