COVID-19 is still spreading through McLennan County, but local officials said it is possible to manage the situation while the state government relaxes some safety measures.
The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District reported Wednesday that a 68-year-old resident of the county had died because of COVID-19, bringing the county’s death toll from the disease to 99. The health district also reported 153 newly confirmed cases in residents of the county, bringing the total to 7,779, including 430 that remain active. Of the 153 cases reported Wednesday, 78 were tested a month to two months ago but not properly reported to the health district at the time, spokesperson Kelly Craine said.
The 78 positive tests were conducted at a local clinic that had not been reporting properly, Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said during a weekly press conference with other local officials. The county may see another round of previously unreported local cases this week tied to a Houston-based lab that saw reporting issues with about 25,000 positive tests statewide.
Deaver said the county’s new case count continues to average 50 to 60 per day, not counting the previously unreported cases. Hospitalizations linked to COVID-19 in Waco have increased from about 30 to about 50, and seven residents died last week. He said the county’s 7% average testing positivity rate is encouraging, but the rate is brought lower by a relatively high volume of Baylor University’s surveillance testing, which is testing of randomly selected people, with no ties to COVID-19 symptoms or exposure to anyone with an infection.
Excluding Baylor’s tests, the county’s rate would be about 10.8%, Deaver said.
“It’s another indication that we can’t be lax in how we’re behaving,” he said.
Deaver said Labor Day marked the first time a holiday weekend was not immediately followed by a rapid rise in cases. He said reopening can work, as long as everyone continues to mask up, socially distance and wash their hands.
“We got through that, we got through the opening of Waco ISD, and then last week the governor continued to open the economy, opening several things from 50% to 75%,” Deaver said. “That’s great news. That’s what we need to have happen in our state and our community.”
Dr. Ben Wilson with the Family Health Center said the current R(1) value, which estimates how many people an infected person is likely to spread the virus to, sits at less than 1 for the state and exactly 1 for the county, where the number of active cases is relatively stable. The Family Health Center had 18 tests come back positive within the past 24 hours, a noticeable uptick from the previous days, Wilson said during the Wednesday afternoon press conference.
The health center’s clinics saw a spike in children age 4 to 18 coming in for flu- or COVID-19-like illnesses after the start of Waco ISD’s school year, Wilson said. While an uptick in visits for flulike illness is common with the start of school, this year’s increase could just be a result of more people choosing to go to the doctor instead of waiting out the symptoms at home, in light of the threat COVID-19 poses.
A new executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott also allows a hospital to perform more elective surgeries if the facility can set aside 10% of capacity for COVID-19 patients and if its trauma service area is not considered to have a high hospitalization rate, said Dr. Brian Becker, chief medical officer for Ascension Providence Medical Center. Another executive order allows for visitation in some nursing homes, as long as the facility has no active cases and certain protocol is followed.
Dr. Josh Houser, an emergency director from Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center, said the number of COVID-19 patients has remained relatively stable. At the same time, the number of emergency patients has dropped significantly.
While some statewide measures are relaxed, many fall events have been canceled, including National Night Out events, Waco Cultural Arts Fest, the annual Veterans Day Parade and an Ironman triathlon.
“It’s hard to see these events get canceled, especially the Veterans Day Parade,” Deaver said. “But every event is different, and in that situation you’ve got a lot of vulnerable people and our elderly veterans that we want to protect.”
The Heart of Texas Fair and Rodeo will start Wednesday, with attractions limited to rodeo and livestock show events, with occupancy in the Heart of Texas Coliseum limited to half of capacity.
“The Heart of Texas Fair utilizes an app that places people in seating with spacing to the front and side,” McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said. “It can seat family groups together.”
Deaver said more large events could be greenlit with the right safety measures if conditions improve in fall.
“Again, it’s always safer not to do those things, but there are some things we need to do for fundraisers for nonprofits and things like that that are really beneficial to our community, that present other reasons to think about approving them,” Deaver said.
Felton said he sees almost universal compliance with the mask order in public places, but that is not always the case in social settings.
“We’re finding through contact tracing that a lot of the source of the spread is within social or even family settings,” Felton said. “Those are areas we’re really trying to work on to educate and get the word out.”
Deaver said he would recommend leaving any business where mask orders are not being followed and said violations can be reported to Waco’s code enforcement department by calling 750-5970.
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