Matt Richardson

Denton County Public Health Director Matt Richardson speaks about COVID-19 during Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting.

After months of steady decline in coronavirus cases, Denton County Public Health Director Matt Richardson says virus concern is creeping in once again, with improvement stalling and holiday travel on the horizon.

Locally, the delta variant surge peaked at nearly 3,500 cases the first week of September. Nearly every week since then, DCPH has reported decreases by the hundreds. But Richardson said Tuesday that trend could be slowing down, as the department’s latest case data shows only a minimal decrease for the first week of November.

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A Denton County Public Health chart shows COVID-19 cases by date of symptom onset, prior to Tuesday afternoon's update. As investigations continue, more cases will be added to the first week of November. 

The week of Oct. 24-30 came in at just under 600 cases, with the next seven days coming in at 530 by Monday afternoon. If it holds, that progression would be similar to what the county saw over the spring and summer, when cases gradually dropped off upon reaching 600 and eventually fell to under 200. But Richardson said investigations are continuing, which will add even more cases to November’s first week.

“That’s not the decline you saw mid-October to late October,” Richardson said. “That’s of some concern because we’re not experiencing that big decline that we were hoping to see. … Next week, the proof will be in the pudding.”

Compounding Richardson’s concerns of a progress plateau are the upcoming holidays. The past year’s winter months brought the worst case and death totals of the pandemic, although Richardson said that doesn’t necessarily mean another spike is on the way.

“We saw what happened last year, and we don’t necessarily believe we’re going to replicate last year’s experience,” Richardson said. “But it’s a concern, because we’re starting to plateau at just the wrong time. We’re going to have larger gatherings, lots of families mixing, and so we’re not sure what this holds.”

Elsewhere in the country, COVID-19 cases have already taken a turn for the worse. America as a whole reported an 11% increase in cases last week, largely stemming from states in the Midwest and Northeast. Richardson cautioned those spikes could work their way south.

“Every time another part of the country has seen a big wave, that wave has shown up — maybe in a lesser degree — in Denton County,” Richardson said.

One positive development from Richardson’s presentation is that the delta variant remains far and away the most active COVID-19 strain. He’s long maintained that any future bursts of virus activity will be limited unless a new, vaccine-resistant strain emerges.

Hanging in the balance is the county’s standing with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. While 71.4% of United States counties are classified as “high transmission” by CDC data, Denton County is labeled “substantial” along with 15.1% of the nation.

To get to “moderate,” the county would need fewer than 50 cases reported per 100,000 people in the course of one week — about 450 for the county’s total population. At that point, the CDC no longer recommends vaccinated residents wear masks, a step reserved for areas of substantial or high spread. Only 13.4% of counties nationwide have met that mark or better, including neighbors Collin, Grayson and Cooke.

Richardson said DCPH would follow suit in changing its stance on masks, though recent data doesn’t have him optimistic about reaching moderate transmission anytime soon.

“We’re going to be stuck in this substantial mode of transmission instead of down to that moderate,” Richardson said. “We’re going to need to see fewer cases.”

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