Local COVID-19 cases are stacking quickly alongside what Denton County Public Health Director Matt Richardson called an “unprecedented” rise in one statewide statistic: molecular test positivity, which has reached an all-time high of 35%.
By Richardson’s presentation at Thursday afternoon’s Commissioners Court meeting, it had been nearly a month since he last spoke publicly on COVID-19 trends. Since then, what was a fairly consistent flow of cases has turned into an avalanche, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating the omicron strain now accounts for over 95% of cases in the region.
According to DCPH’s symptom onset data, the week of Dec. 19-25 gained over 1,000 cases compared with the week prior, including the 20-29 age group more than doubling from 295 cases to 744. The percentage of inpatient hospital beds taken up by COVID-19 patients has seen a subsequent increase as well, once again bringing hospital capacity concerns to the forefront.
“Omicron is indeed another surge and another wave,” Richardson said. “One in five people in Denton County hospitals has COVID-19.”
Though DCPH has a variety of county-specific stats at its disposal, it was a statewide metric that best demonstrates how widespread the current surge has been. The Texas Department of State Health Services reported molecular test positivity at an all-time high of 35.08% Wednesday. That positivity barely topped 20% during the first two surges in July 2020 and last winter, and never reached 20% during the delta variant surge.
“This is an unprecedented, meteoric rise in positivity,” Richardson said. “We’re talking about at Halloween, 5% positivity, even December 15th, 10% positivity — yesterday, 35% positivity. … That is stratosphere level.”
The state also reports positivity for the less accurate antigen rapid tests, which has hovered at just above 20% for about a week. Antigen positivity topped out at 25.1% during the first major coronavirus surge and hasn’t hit current levels since then. The daily number of molecular tests administered has also risen to an all-time high.
Richardson continued to stress the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine and booster shot, including the release of new “decision tree” charts for general use and school use. He said the charts are based on CDC guidance and walk residents through the best practices for isolation and quarantine. That latest guidance includes that anyone who’s been boosted doesn’t need to quarantine if they’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive.
“The vaccine is the best option to get back to work,” Richardson said.
County officials appointed Brad Sebastian the new head fire marshal Thursday after last year’s death of Roland Asebedo. Sebastian came to the emergency services department as a deputy fire marshal in 2015 and has served as assistant fire marshal since 2017.
“I want to thank Jody [Gonzalez] for the mentorship, as well as Roland,” Sebastian said. “I wouldn’t be standing here today without that mentorship.”
Denton County Economic Development Director Michael Talley, who held the position for three years, also was recognized after his resignation. Talley will be taking a job in the city of McKinney. County communications director Dawn Cobb said officials aren’t close to naming a new economic development director.
After two fire engines and a few police cars were hit by drivers last year, the Denton Fire Department got to work to get its hands on a highway blocker truck.
That 46-foot truck, budgeted for about $170,000, is now sitting at Denton Fire Station 3 just off Interstate 35E near the University of North Texas.
“What we’re really looking at is [using it at] any roadways with 60-mph or higher speed,” Denton Fire Chief Kenneth Hedges said Wednesday when he unveiled the truck to other fire department staff. “The number one reason is to protect our first responders out there. Number 2, actually, is if we have anybody that hits this device … it’s less impactful on them because it’s designed to collapse on itself.”
While blocking traffic and responding to crashes on the highway last year, two Denton fire engines were hit by motorists. Firefighters were also injured when drivers hit the engines, but no one suffered any serious injuries.
Those crashes took those fire engines out of service. Hedges said it costs about $800,000 to get the new trucks themselves, but prices could reach $1 million per truck if they need all new equipment such as specialized saws, rescue harnesses and hoses.
Two new fire engines will replace the old ones and are scheduled to arrive in April, he said.
The highway blocker truck, designed and built by Peterbilt, also has a Scorpion attenuator attached to the back. Just like a real scorpion, the attenuator folds in on itself like a scorpion’s tail and stinger. When it’s extended, it also shows off an electronic sign board that will read speeds out to drivers passing by.
The truck was unveiled to fire, police and city staff Wednesday at Denton Fire Station 3. Hedges said it will remain there.
“It’s our closest station [to I-35],” he said. “It’s kind of the midpoint in the city as far as being able to go on the interstates in either direction.”
The Fire Department worked with Peterbilt and Rush Truck Centers to get the blocker truck. Hedges said they started to look for one after the August incidents where fire trucks were hit.
“It’s a 26,000-pound gross-scale collision truck,” said Matt Lyon, a sales representative with Rush Truck Centers. “Anyone can drive it with a non-CDL license.”
Some police cars were also hit last year, although two were during the February storm where cars slid into police cars on icy roads while they were already working through crashes. In two other incidents, police were working through a crash when unoccupied cars were hit, and they finished making an arrest in a third incident.
Hedges said the truck wouldn’t be limited to just the Fire Department’s use.
“This is fire and police,” he said. “It won’t just be going to incidents that fire responds to on the interstate. It will also be anything with a police response and they need that blocking capability.”
When Anna Eckert first became interested in witchcraft a few years ago, she was doing tarot readings on Twitter for friends and mutuals. That evolved into selling crystal-infused candles at the Denton Community Market, at Denton Arts & Jazz Fest and online.
Now Eckert is opening her own shop — but she’s maintaining the same philosophy of offering a community-centered space for enchanting wares.
Tucked into a spot at 507 S. Locust St. next to Susie’s Snack Shop, The Storm Witch will offer handmade candles, bulk herbs, crystals and other spiritual items beginning this week. Hosting a grand opening Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., the shop offers around 500 square feet of retail space for shoppers, along with a candle studio in back. While the shop is a big step up in physical space for Eckert, she hopes it will be enough to meet the demand she’s already anticipating among locals.
“I’m nervous for the simple reason that I told people I was going to be open all weekend, but I’ve gotten over a million views on TikTok in the last two weeks — a lot of people are going to show up, and I’m worried they’re going to sell me out,” Eckert said.
Eckert became interested in witchcraft during her senior year of college, where she studied economics. After 18 years as a Methodist and five as an atheist, Eckert was searching for something that would allow her to practice spirituality without being locked into a set of prescribed beliefs. It’s something she hopes to share with others through The Storm Witch.
Along with being LGBTQ- and neurodivergent-owned, Eckert said what sets the shop apart from some other witch shops is the focus on accessibility.
“There’s a lot of shops that aren’t beginner-friendly,” Eckert said. “People walk in and are just on their phone trying to figure out what everything means. I have keywords on everything and signs for people who are new into this.”
Part of Eckert’s mission is in educating those new to the craft about how to practice in sustainable, inclusive ways. The goal is to strike a balance between being a spot for restocking for people practicing many different spiritual backgrounds and offering items that are ethically sourced.
“Most witch shops sell stuff that is closed to certain cultures — I don’t sell white sage because it’s closed to indigenous cultures and it’s also endangered at this point, but if you’re not in the community, you wouldn’t know that,” Eckert said.
It also means pricing items so anyone can afford to shop. Many crystals are $1 or less at The Storm Witch, with herb bundles for burning just $5. Apart from her own candles, Eckert sources many products like the shop’s jewelry and oils from local makers, with rocks and crystals coming directly from a mining company to help cut costs for customers.
She also hopes to have tarot readers offer readings in the shop sometimes, though the small space limits availability for workshops and other in-house events.
The shop will be a full-time job for Eckert, whose remote position at a bank will end this summer. She plans to hire staff to help man the store eventually — her inboxes are already flooded with hopefuls — but is focusing on getting established for now, with the help of a few volunteers and her husband, a graduate student at the University of North Texas.
The first 20 customers at Friday’s grand opening will get 20% off, but Eckert expects all shoppers will find plenty to fill their cauldrons without breaking the bank.
As for Eckert, she hopes The Storm Witch is just the beginning.
“I decided to change careers and knew I wanted to open my own metaphysical shop one day — I started making candles because I had to start somewhere, and now I’m here,” Eckert said. “It’s exciting.”
You could say Kevin Fralicks’ blood runs Mean Green.
The UNT alumnus and former university employee is back on campus, this time as the associate vice president for alumni relations and advancement communications. He still wears his UNT class ring, and he still recalls finding the Jostens paperwork sent to his mother to notify the family he could pick up the ring.
“That was before there were cellphones, and my mother had to catch me in Clark Hall,” Fralicks said.
The university recruited Fralicks from the University of South Alabama, where he served as the school’s development director. Fralicks said UNT has had a special place in his heart since he graduated in 1987 with a double major in kinesiology and recreation management. It took time and conversations with his wife and adult children. It even took some prayer and a few more negotiations with UNT.
“Kevin has a terrific history with UNT — both as a valued employee and an alumnus of the College of Education,” said David Wolf, vice president for university advancement. “I am thrilled to bring his extensive leadership skills and enthusiasm for the Mean Green Family back to campus.”
Fralicks said the new job is his “third tour of duty” at UNT. He previously served at UNT as the executive director of development for the G Brint. Ryan College of Business and the associate athletic director of development.
“I’ve worked in other programs,” Fralicks said. “When it’s your alma mater, it’s more important.”
In his campus office, Fralicks is surrounded by nostalgic landmarks.
“It’s an honor to look out this window and see the dorm my daughter lived in,” Fralicks said. “I look out this window, and if this newer dorm (Rawlins Hall) wasn’t there, I’d be looking at Clark Hall, where I lived when I was a student... I ate at New York Sub Hub the first day it was opened. Everywhere you look, there’s a memory.”
Fralicks is a first generation college student. Hailing from Duncanville, he was raised by parents whose education ended in the eighth grade. The Depression required his mother and father to work to help support their big families.
As he drew closer to high school graduation, Fralicks had a teacher who encouraged him to further his schooling.
“I had a high school teacher who told me ‘You’re a pretty good writer,’” he said. “She told me I wouldn’t be a journalist, but ‘You’re better than you think you are.’ That meant a lot to me.”
Fralicks has a big job ahead of him. When he was a student, more tuition dollars covered university costs. But since he graduated, public funding for universities has dwindled. In his position at UNT, Fralicks faces an era where universities will rely on alumni donations more and more.
But he doesn’t think alumni engagement is all about big donations and bequests. It’s about cultivating partnerships — Texas A&M announced last year that it had raised $4.25 billion in a nine-year campaign that brought in nearly one million donations between four fundraising groups that included thousands of alumni gifts. Former Aggies gave 60% of the money in the campaign.
“You have to give people something of value,” Fralicks said. “It has to be experiential. I got here and we got into a bowl game. We had a tailgating event, where there were thousands of people. People enjoyed it, and it didn’t just happen. You create an experience.”
Fralicks said his team — which he is still building — will first court any alumni they meet to join the UNT Alumni Association if they haven’t already. Membership comes in at $40 a year (or $3.33 a month), and moves the needle more than most alumni could imagine. Recent graduates can join the association for $20.
“Individuals are going to transform this campus,” Fralicks said. “Yes, our research is important. And what the university has done with the College of Business is amazing. I’ve seen [UNT President] Neal [Smatresk] make amazing transformations here in a short time. But individuals are going to transform the university.”
But it’s not just about money.
“Everything starts with engagement, meeting people and finding out who they are,” he said. “Our job is to learn who our alumni are and what they’re doing. Yes, you might get a big donation, but that donation began with a conversation, and learning what the university means to them.”
Of the nearly half a million UNT alumni, 314,000 live in the North Texas region, and Denton is home to thousands of them.
“Denton has exploded since I was in college,” Fralicks said. “A lot of alumni stayed in Denton because of the university.”
Fralicks said he means to recruit more alumni to join the association. He considers the current membership, which is between 10,000 and 15,000, to be a challenge.
“That’s not good,” he said. “Not good enough.”
His office will work with a consultant to generate an alumni brand, and he hopes to hire some more people.
“I need more bodies to reach those 461,000 people,” he said. “We have to define why people should be a member. I’ve been blessed to work around a lot of good alumni professionals. You’ve got to be passionate. You’ve got to love this place, and you’ve got to understand the culture of Denton.”
Fralicks said his history is a good head start.
“Now we’ve got to arrive at our value as an association, and we have to show the alumni our value.”