Just one day removed from reporting a single-day record-high number of new COVID-19 cases, Tarrant County Health Director Vinny Taneja went before the Tarrant County Commissioners Court on Tuesday to deliver “bad news” regarding the spread of the coronavirus in the local area.
“Things are progressing pretty rapidly,” Taneja said. “The last week was pretty rough.”
According to Taneja, the positivity rate for COVID-19 tests in Tarrant County has reached as high as 15% in recent days, up from less than 7% approximately four weeks ago. A 10% positivity rate is what has been seen as problematic to statewide public health leaders, and Governor Greg Abbott.
“It is worse now than in July in terms of an upsurge,” Taneja told the commissioners court.
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If the surge were to continue, Taneja stressed that his office, and local government in general, is limited in its ability to take decisive action to help slow the spread. But if he were able to enact policy, Taneja indicated he would urge the county to issue a public health warning geared toward the upcoming holiday season.
Among the recommendations he said he would make, Taneja would encourage people to limit their holiday celebrations to only the people who live in the household, to avoid all indoor and outdoor gatherings, to avoid indoor dining at restaurants, to avoid bars, to avoid gyms, to wear a mask, and to maintain social distance.
County Judge Glen Whitley, piggybacking off Taneja’s concerns, indicated that he wished school districts in the county, as well as the youth sports organizations, would consider postponing or suspending upcoming athletic events in the interest of slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
Whitley said he has attended some games himself as a grandfather of nine.
"If you’re looking at football, you’re looking at volleyball, basketball...there’s absolutely no way those kids can be together without contact. Let alone, there’s no way they’re social distancing. When you look out into the bleachers, you’ve got parents out there not wearing masks. Not social distancing," he said Tuesday. "I truly believe that that’s a big part of the reason we’re having the spread right now."
As a county judge, Whitley said he cannot mandate any school districts to postpone or suspend athletic programming. This is something he hopes school boards would put into consideration, he said.
"I think kids need to be in school. Please don’t take that as ‘I want to close the schools down’ but when you continue the athletics, I haven’t figured out a way you can block somebody and not pretty well be in their face," he said.
Asked whether this recommendation also extends to professional sports, Whitley said "I understand professional sports. That is a big of the economy. That’s a big part of a lot of things. Your NBA just went through a whole set of games, they were able to prove of the fact that they can do that. Football has not been quite as successful but for the most part, they have been."
Youth sports were not specifically mentioned in Taneja's presentation Tuesday morning. However, he advised the virus is a "person to person" illness.
"We all know how to minimize person to person contact. I looked across the country and across the globe at how many different places are implementing different things," he said. "I think it’s time for us to stick with our individual family unit as much as possible. So, try not to do anything that’s not absolutely necessarily. I mean, those things are really bare minimum -- going to work, going to get food at the grocery store or any medical visit or pharmacy visit."
NBC 5 reached out to several Tarrant County school districts regarding the judge's recommendation on youth sporting events. Some responded saying they had not heard from the judge directly and were evaluating their procedures.
Lake Worth Independent School District's superintendent Dr. Rose Mary Neshyba said in a press release that a decision to suspend athletic events has not been made at this time.
"It is important to note, however, that our athletes are screened daily before entering our athletics complex. I am very confident in our leadership’s adherence to consistently and thoroughly applying our health and safety protocols” Dr. Neshyba stated.
At Burleson ISD, Director of Athletics Kevin Ozee said they have not discussed suspending extracurriculars within the district. They will take direction from the UIL, TEA, and local Public Health in any decision process toward COVID-19, Ozee said in an emailed statement.
The rest of Ozee's statement to NBC 5 reads as follows:
"There is no doubt that COVID is a problem and is serious. I have friends my age and older who are currently battling it. On the other hand, I have not heard of serious issues with student-ages battling it. On the whole, we've (coaches) demonstrated that we can follow protocol and keep kids in a routine where they are monitored constantly. We've been navigating the COVID pandemic for in-person school athletics since June. If we have an issue, our City Public Health Director in consultation with our BISD Director of Health Services isolates immediately, contact traces, and quarantines when necessary. This process happens very fast as we have great people staying on top of it. I believe the speed and efficiency of our process has been able to keep the number of positive cases low in BISD. If school extracurriculars are canceled again, I believe we are going to see unintended consequences that far exceed COVID cases. I can see the positive cases actually rise if extracurriculars are canceled as students will not be under a coach's watch and cannot be held accountable for following protocol. Our coaches and athletes have done a wonderful job following protocols since June and should be praised for their efforts."
A spokesperson for Everman ISD said at this time, they will be continuing with athletics and taking the necessary precautions to keep everyone safe.