Dallas County Commissioners Tuesday questioned the money they are spending on two big coronavirus support programs, a quarantine hotel and contact tracing.
The Best Western Plus Hotel off the Stemmons Freeway and Walnut Hill Lane agreed to a contract of more than $1 million in federal COVID-19 relief money from the county last month.
The hotel would provide blocks of 10 rooms at a time along with meals so that relatives or patients with mild cases could quarantine apart from each other. The county also provided security and nursing care and made the rooms available for people from Dallas County and the City of Dallas.
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All together officials said Tuesday that expenses for the quarantine hotel have been about $21,000 a week. But no more than eight guests a day have used it.
“Hell, I’d have taken them home for that money,” County Commissioner John Wiley Price said. “The city didn't need it. Why are we still burning through this million dollars?”
Dallas County Health Director Philip Huang said the COVID-19 threat level has been reduced from Red to Orange. Fewer positive tests are being reported and hospitalization is down. But that could easily change as schools return to in-person learning.
“We've got less demand or need for these hotel rooms, but we're not sure in the next couple weeks how these numbers are going to go,” Huang said.
Dallas County devoted around $10 million to trace all contacts of people who tested positive for COVID-19. When a thousand or more new cases were being reported each day, it was impossible to trace all those contacts.
The number of new cases is now averaging less than 200 a day, right at the level the contact tracing program was designed to accommodate.
But new test data from the State of Texas for Dallas County is still arriving weeks behind the time those tests were first administered, too late for useful contact tracing and accurate data analysis. Doctor Huang said some state data is still handled on paper and not electronically.
“It’s been a lack of investment in the public health data infrastructure that now we’re really paying for,” he said. “It’s a very archaic. It’s amazing to me, it’s 2020 and we’re still dealing with this. And this is what we’re trying, to upgrade the system.”
Commissioner J.J. Koch asked whether the continued data investment by Dallas County is worthwhile given the need for other spending in this pandemic.
“Where is the give up point? Where is; alright I’m going to stop spending dollars on data infrastructure because we can buy more masks,” Koch said.
Huang said health officials must not give up on improving data. He said a new county system will be in place within two weeks that will receive information directly from hospitals in Dallas County and that the state data problems are improving.
“The first thing is to get the correct data so you can assess what's going on. See where you need to target the interventions,” Huang said.
The Health Director also said the quarantine hotel should remain available for a few more weeks, even as County officials said the owners of that hotel have indicated they would like to remove the designation as quarantine hotel with so few county guests to serve.
*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.