June 23

The Denton County Commissioners Court met Tuesday at the Courthouse on the Square, where access continues to be restricted to commissioners, county staff and media. Shown is the June 23 meeting.

A stark update was presented to Denton County commissioners on Tuesday — the COVID-19 health crisis is worsening, but commissioners declined to vote on mandating citizens to wear masks.

For several months, Denton County Public Health director Matt Richardson has provided the Denton County Commissioners Court with updates about the ongoing coronavirus health response. On Tuesday, Richardson noted that countywide cases continued to spike, but stopped short of calling for a face mask requirement for businesses or the public.

Instead, Richardson said that face masks would only be recommended, citing that hospital capacity “remains very flexible.”

“We have a high margin to accept a potential surge, but if that changes, public health does reserve the right to recommend to the court that we have communitywide interventions,” Richardson said. “We are monitoring that in our surveys and conversations with hospital administrators are telling us that hospital infrastructure [remains] intact and that it’s not taxed.”

Though the county’s weekly positivity rate increased Monday from 7.8% to 9.3%, Denton County Judge Andy Eads remained steadfast that no face mask requirement is coming.

Eads has received significant flak from the public and other elected officials, with dozens of Tuesday’s public comments urging for a more proactive response to the health crisis. Eads received numerous public comments, he said, calling on commissioners to take up action similar to Dallas County, but noted that the two counties have large differences.

“Dallas County has three times the population, eight times the number of cases and eight-and-a-half times the number of deaths, so when people say we need to be ‘more like Dallas County,’ I think a lot of our measures in Denton County work,” Eads said. “We continue to do mobile testing across the county [and] we relaxed criteria so that we can test more people.”

In addition to the weekly positivity rate increasing, Richardson said both symptom onset and daily cases reported are trending upward in the last few weeks. With expanded testing standards, Richardson noted there was no ascertainment bias.

“We have expanded who can get testing, so we would anticipate that we would have more individuals who are the 'worried well,' but even when we included them, we’re still seeing an increase in the percent positive, which is concerning,” he said.

The most prominent spike the county health department is seeing is of individuals between the ages of 20-29, who are the leading age group of community infection. While this is concerning because of possible transmission to older and more vulnerable populations, Richardson said patients in that age group aren’t needing hospitalization.

According to daily hospital capacities, slightly over half of all hospital beds were occupied, while roughly 43% of ICU beds and approximately 14% of ventilators were in use, according to data from DCPH. Of that, 28 beds are occupied by confirmed COVID-19 patients.

“This is good news,” Richardson said about current hospital capacities in addition to the mortality rate. “COVID-19 has not greatly impacted our mortality rate and, that could change, but the county is below the state, national and global average.”

As commissioners resort to encouraging rather than requiring, Eads said the reason behind their decision was an attempt to balance individual freedoms with personal responsibility. While commissioners ended Tuesday’s meeting without indication of a forthcoming mask ordinance, he said businesses and municipalities can require face masks be worn, too.

As the health response continues, Eads said that outbreaks and resurgent cases were expected, as a vaccine is not available.

“What we are looking at is data regarding hospitalizations, as the herd immunity is spreading across the county, we do not have a vaccine, but herd immunity is being formed across the county, which is expected,” Eads said. “Just because [Gov. Greg Abbott] has opened up Texas does not mean that the coast is clear — it’s more than masks, it’s a lifestyle change.”

Commissioners on Tuesday also unanimously approved a contract renewal between the Denton County Sheriff’s Office and the Texas Workforce Commission. The five-year contract allows the sheriff’s office to assist in ongoing criminal investigations and in locating defendants, witnesses and fugitives.

No action was taken on the disaster declaration, set to expire Tuesday, June 30.

RYAN HIGGS can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @ryanahiggs.

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