There’s really no good way to get into this, other than to rip the band-aid straight off: The last few weeks, Tarrant County has struggled to control the coronavirus pandemic worse than anywhere in Texas.
On Wednesday, its two-week new case count for COVID-19 was 35,515, the highest number in the state. It had been at about 38,000 two days earlier and marked a rise from around 17,000 in late December. Its new case rate of 17.6 per 1,000 population on Wednesday was nearly double the state’s rate of 9.7, and higher than any large Texas county. (Harris County was at 6.7). Even Los Angeles County, seen as a national epicenter for spread — and so troubling that its Rose Bowl football game was moved to Arlington — has fared better. Its cases per 1,000 for the last two weeks was 15.7.
Elected officials have dismissed the potential danger of case counts and focused on hospitalizations, but those rates have also been troubling. On Jan. 1, the same day AT&T Stadium hosted the Rose Bowl, 99% of adult ICU beds in Tarrant County were occupied. It was the highest share throughout the pandemic and the peak of a steady rise from levels that hovered around 80% in the early fall. (Of total county hospital beds, about 85% have been occupied in recent days.) As the state reels from its highest COVID hospitalization levels yet, Tarrant County is a clear driving force. It represented 11% of Texas’ total hospitalizations on Monday, despite having just 7% of the state’s residents. More populous Dallas County, also facing a surge in infections and record hospitalizations, has consistently had about 300 fewer daily hospitalized COVID patients than Tarrant over the last week.
Deaths have risen, too. Lately, Tarrant County has been seeing around 15 to 30 coronavirus deaths per day. As of Wednesday, its population-adjusted daily average death rate for the last seven days was about 40% higher than Dallas’ and all of Texas’.
The pandemic has affected the state’s big metros with differing levels of severity through the last 10 months, but Tarrant County’s last couple of weeks have been as bad as the worst weeks of any of the top five most populous counties. Harris County, at an infection peak in late July, was seeing case counts around 15 per 1,000 population and about 30 to 40 deaths per day, a comparable rate to Tarrant County now, adjusted for population. Other than much smaller communities, only Hidalgo and El Paso counties, roughly half the size of Tarrant, have reported substantially higher infection and death rates than what Tarrant County is seeing now.
“Tarrant County managed to get lucky and managed to escape and basically the chickens have come home to roost, unfortunately,” said Benjamin Neuman, a professor of biology and chief virologist at Texas A&M who has closely observed COVID’s spread throughout the state. “That’s the thing with viruses and protecting against viruses. If you don’t wear a mask for one day sometimes you can get away with it. If you don’t wear a mask every day, it catches up with you.”
From the outset of the pandemic, Neuman noted, Tarrant County was a step behind in instituting measures for mitigating the disease. It also didn’t help that various officials in Tarrant County, most prominently in Colleyville, pushed back against restrictions.
Although Gov. Greg Abbott removed most powers for handling COVID from local governments, Tarrant has lagged in precautions and messaging that are routine elsewhere. Harris County and Dallas County, for instance, opted to keep bars closed in the fall, while Tarrant County opened them until rising hospitalization rates forced a shutdown in December. Because most bars used a loophole to stay open as restaurants the decision had no practical effect, but it was indicative of wider messaging. Cities like San Antonio and counties like Harris, Dallas and Travis have publicized rating systems that educate the public on the severity of COVID’s spread and the actions they should be taking; Tarrant County doesn’t have one. (The city of Fort Worth doesn’t either, although the city and Mayor Betsy Price have promoted mask wearing.) Tarrant County did, however, send a text message alert ahead of Thanksgiving to discourage gatherings, a warning it hasn’t used since.
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SOURCE: Fort Worth Star Telegram, Mark Dent