Why set aside money for coronavirus contract tracing when the massive number of cases exceeds any practical effort at finding contacts? That was one debate Tuesday among Dallas County Commissioners, their health director and county officials.
The county received coronavirus relief money from the Federal Government that’s been used for housing support, small business assistance, child care, equipment and more.
In June, officials said $10 million was budgeted for a coronavirus contact tracing staff of 260 at the county Health and Human Services Department.
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“I’m just trying to figure out how are we managing this? Are we just throwing the money up in the air right now and are we seeing the desired results,” Commissioner John Wiley Price asked.
Assistant County Administrator Charles Reed said the effort was underway but very few people have been hired and space for them is not ready because of a variety of issues including technology.
“HHS built that program based on a model of 192 cases a day. It has not been adjusted since we started experiencing a thousand cases a day,” Reed said.
With contact tracing impractical, Price and Commissioner J.J. Koch suggested there may be better uses for the money.
“The window where contact tracing may be effective may not be until November,” Koch said. “We’ll be warming up for the effect of contact tracing for a very long time for the short window of it being effective.”
Koch said a vaccine may be available in January or February, making contract tracing unnecessary.
Price and Koch pointed out that County Commissioners had been asked to spend $8 million to support a planned overflow hospital at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center that turned out to be unnecessary.
“But for this court tapping the brakes, we made that decision, and that’s $8 million that we have been able to expend or reallocate elsewhere,” Price said.
Dallas County Health Director Dr. Philip Huang said people and modern technology for contact tracing is needed to finish off this pandemic once the number of new cases becomes more manageable and the capability will be useful for other health threats. Texas has used outdated fax machines for some data in this pandemic, Huang said.
“That’s where building up this system right now is critical. We’ve got this time. We’re building it up,” Huang said. “And we need to update these systems, not only for COVID-19 but for the future. What I’m seeing now coming into the department is how far behind we are.”
Dr. Huang became Dallas County Health Director in 2019 after serving as Medical Director for the City of Austin.
“So far, our medical advisors have been right on every, single point. So, there’s no doubt in my mind that I have to follow their recommendation,” said Commissioner Elba Garcia, who is also a practicing dentist.
Dallas County has also been promoting faster coronavirus test results to ease fear.
Resident Larry McCord said his wife went to the Ellis Davis Field House testing in far Southern Dallas on July 18, after Dallas County took over operation of the site from the Federal Government. County officials complained the federal operations took up to 10 days to provide test results, so slow that the tests were virtually useless to save people from unneeded quarantines.
McCord said he heard about the county’s revised operation from NBC 5.
“I saw your article about that and was expecting that we would have a pretty good turn around,” McCord said. “She never got a response.”
County Commissioner Theresa Daniel said Tuesday that she and her staff were tested at a county site a week ago and they had received no results. Her statement came at the same meeting where County Judge Clay Jenkins said results are being provided from county sites in 48 to 72 hours.
Larry McCord and his wife had been exposed to someone who tested positive. McCord’s wife was forced to use vacation time during the long wait because she could not produce a negative test result to return to work.
After questions from NBC 5 Tuesday morning, McCord’s wife did receive a negative test result that same day, 17 days after the test.
“That tells me something is still not being done well,” McCord said.
McCord’s wife completed an entire 14 days of quarantine at home before receiving the test result from Dallas County’s testing.
*Map locations are approximate, central locations for the city and are not meant to indicate where actual infected people live.
**County totals below include all 32 North Texas counties, not just Collin, Dallas, Denton and Tarrant.