McLennan County is in uncharted and dangerous territory as exponential spread of the coronavirus has resumed, potentially exacerbated by Halloween crowds, local officials said Thursday.
The mass testing conducted by the city and county has not lowered the positivity rate as expected, Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said during a press conference Thursday. Instead, the rate has doubled to 13% since late last month on a rolling seven-day average basis. Deaver said the sharp increase in hospitalizations in the past two weeks is likely a prelude to an upswing in ventilator use at hospitals and ultimately more deaths.
“We’ve now lost a total of 165 of our friends and neighbors to this pandemic,” Deaver said Thursday morning, before updated figures that afternoon added three to the local death toll. “This is the situation we’ve been warning about, and it’s beginning to take shape again. It’s happening across the nation, it’s happening across our state, and it’s happening here in our community. But we have a choice, and our behavior will influence how harshly we’re affected as a community.”
By day’s end, the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District reported 153 new cases in McLennan County residents, bringing the cumulative COVID-19 case count to 11,778, including 1,071 estimated active cases. The toll of deaths attributed to COVID-19 was at 168. Of the 72 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Waco as of Thursday, 12 were on ventilators.
At Deaver’s final COVID-19 press conference before his term ends next week, he and Family Health Center CEO Dr. Jackson Griggs and Ascension Providence Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Becker broke down the increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
They offered analysis as to why Waco-McLennan County Public Health District anticipates an increase in the number of lives claimed by the virus over the next four weeks.
Daily new case counts have increased from 68 new cases per day two weeks ago to 136 new cases per day as of Wednesday, based on a seven-day rolling average, Deaver said.
“It’s very concerning to see us now taking off and moving again in that direction,” Deaver said. “Dr. Griggs, others and myself have been saying for weeks now that we are near the tipping point, that exponential growth could start if we’re not careful. And it appears a large number of people have not been careful enough.”
He said the exponential growth started after the Halloween weekend, and the health district has traced cases back to at least one local bar and one event venue.
“These were large parties where people were not following the safety measures, and we now have a number of cases that have come from that,” Deaver said.
Deaver did not name any of the locations that held rule-breaking parties, but several venues in McLennan County posted about Halloween gatherings on Facebook.
5J Dance Hall in McGregor posted a photo of a crowd dancing in close quarters on Halloween night. The Exchange Event Center in McGregor held a Halloween event, but instructed attendees to wear masks and use provided hand sanitizer. Waco nightclub Melody Ranch held its annual Halloween party and costume contest. None of the venues responded to phone calls Thursday afternoon.
Deaver said the Waco Police Department responded to 22 calls last month about people not wearing masks as required, including six calls about large, maskless gatherings at homes. During the first week of this month, the department responded to four calls about individuals not wearing masks.
In the previous three months, Waco Code Enforcement has responded to an average of 37 calls a months about mask noncompliance in local businesses, with 43 in August, 36 in September and 32 last month. Code Enforcement has responded to 16 calls so far this month. Deaver said there have been “a number” of repeat offenders among businesses cited by the department.
Deaver said the five-county Trauma Service Area that McLennan County belongs to is edging closer to a statistical threshold that would require certain businesses to restrict capacity or close. If admitted patients with COVID-19 fill more than 15% of all staffed hospital beds in the region for seven days, bars would be forced to close again and other restrictions would be reinstated. That rate for the area has ranged between 11.1% and 12.6% for the past seven days, according Texas Department of State Health Services data.
Griggs said local spread of the virus has been overwhelmingly between friends and family members and is not travel-related.
“It is in those circles where you feel familiarity and comfort with the individual, and that presumption of safety is why the individuals make the poor judgment of taking off the mask, getting close together, and that’s why the virus is spreading in those circles,” Griggs said.
Officials are investigating two clusters of cases linked to churches, he said. Thirteen local long-term care facilities have at least one active COVID-19 case among residents or staff members, and a total of 24 people affiliated with those facilities have active COVID-19 cases.
Fourteen public K-12 school districts and three private schools in the county have a total of 156 active COVID-19 cases, 110 in students and 46 in employees.
“Like the country, our county is now in uncharted territory in terms of the volume of new cases per day, per 100,000 in population,” Griggs said. “The implications of this are sobering. One is that there are cases so widespread that it is difficult to maintain contact tracing and adequate follow-up on that entire population.”
Griggs said 17,060 people have been tested so far through an ongoing surge testing effort. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Sources allocated 40,000 tests for the effort, which are provided free of charge daily at several sites in the county. The positivity rate for surge testing sits at 7.5%, lower than the overall positivity rate for the county, which was at 13% as of Wednesday, on a rolling 7-day average.
Statewide, there have been 993,841 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 19,147 deaths attributed to the disease, according to the Department of State Health Services.
By the count maintained by the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, Texas was the first state to hit 1 million cases, and California is on pace to hit that milestone soon. The Johns Hopkins case counts generally have been slightly ahead of state and federal figures.
Dr. Becker, who represents Ascension Providence during the weekly press conferences, said the hospital is admitting fewer flu patients this year than in previous years but has seen a worrying increase in the number of COVID-19 patients. He said the hospital is also drawing up preliminary plans for how to administer a COVID-19 vaccine when the time comes, though there is no indication of when that might be.