Matt Richardson explains COVID-19 data during Tuesday's Denton County Commissioners Court meeting.

After more than a month of flattening, as health officials wanted to see, the COVID-19 epidemic curve is once again growing both nationwide and across Denton County, Public Health Director Matt Richardson said Tuesday.

As part of his weekly coronavirus update at Tuesday’s county Commissioners Court meeting, Richardson followed up on several metrics he said last week were concerning. Denton County’s active caseload is at 2,780 as of the meeting, up by more than 300 infections from last week, and while total deaths from COVID-19 remain at 118, he said the department is expecting to report multiple deaths throughout the week following recent medical reviews.

Richardson made particular note of a chart showing the county’s cases by date of symptom onset, which he has used frequently in past meetings to demonstrate how the virus’s spread has fluctuated in epidemic curve form. While he has often used it to illustrate a flattening of the curve, or downswing in case volume, he said Tuesday that the curve has started to tell a different story.

“It was flat for the end of July and through August, really until mid-September, but it’s really starting to grow,” Richardson said. “This is continuing — we’re seeing this nationwide, statewide and in Denton County.”

After the meeting, Eads, currently recovering after testing positive for the virus, said he’s confident in the county’s ability to handle the coronavirus, despite the recent increase in cases.

“Our hospitals are well prepared — they’ve spent these last several months training their staff and improving the infrastructure,” Eads said. “We’re in a very different spot in October of 2020 than where we were in March.”

Hospital capacity metrics are faring better, with total inpatient occupancy and ventilator usage down from last week. Adult intensive care unit occupancy is “still pretty high,” with 76 ICU beds occupied and 22 available, though Richardson said this time of year makes for many non-coronavirus illnesses, but that the virus does remain a concern for hospitals.

As for Gov. Greg Abbott’s reference metric for bar reopening — the percentage of total inpatient hospital beds taken up by COVID-19 patients — the county’s seven-day average has remained at 8.5% since Saturday. If a trauma service area reaches over 15%, it no longer would qualify for having bars open.

“It’s flattened out a bit in the last three days — that is excellent,” Richardson said. “We want to keep that plateau and maintain the trend of stasis … we don’t want to get on the front end of these curves where you see these big increases.”

Commissioner Hugh Coleman prompted discussion on how local schools are handling the virus, for which Richardson gave a positive review. Richardson also agreed with County Judge Andy Eads’ assessment that there hasn’t been an increase in cases traced back to bars or any particular area, but rather that the county is experiencing general community spread.

“The community is really preventing large group gatherings,” Richardson said. “That’s important. A superspreader event can’t happen if you don’t have hundreds and hundreds of people in one place.”

No discussion took place among commissioners on whether the spread of the virus is reaching a point where they would consider additional measures to curb it. No action was taken at the meeting on the county’s disaster declaration, which earlier this month was extended through Dec. 30.

As for whether caseload could reach a point where commissioners would consider implementing measures to lower it, Eads said the county is largely focusing on working with the public on following its health recommendations because most of the decision-making authority lies with Gov. Abbott.

“For the toolkit that local officials and county judges had available in the springtime, those tools are no longer available through Gov. Abbott’s executive orders,” Eads said in a phone interview Tuesday. “There’s not a lot of local tools we can implement.”

County employee clinic

Commissioners moved forward Tuesday with the planned Denton County Employee Wellness Clinic, where county employees will be able to go for health services, by approving Parkhill, Smith & Cooper Inc. as the project’s architectural firm and Marathon Health LLC as its health service vendor.

The clinic will be at the county’s complex on Morse Street at Loop 288, using office space that will be retrofitted and remodeled by Parkhill. Commissioners did not specify a timeline for the project, but a previous presentation from the firm suggests construction could begin in February and go until at least May.

Commissioner Ron Marchant said the clinic should save the county money long-term by reducing health claims filed by employees, which it currently has to pay due to being self-insured.

“We’re adding convenience for our workforce as well as cost savings to the county,” Marchant said. “We’re going to be hitting the ground running.”

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