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Dallas County raises COVID-19 risk level to red as omicron variant spreads

Masked people stand six feet apart outside a health center, waiting their turn to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Keren Carrión
/
KERA News
Philip Huang with Dallas County Health and Human Services encourages everyone to get a COVID-19 vaccine and a booster shot as cases and hospitalizations climb in the county. Only 13% of people in the county have received a booster shot so far.

The change comes after a recent increase in cases and hospitalizations.

Dallas County's Public Health Committee moved the county's COVID-19 risk level to red Tuesday, signaling a “high risk of transmission.”

The county also reported more than 1,600 new cases through Dec. 23, many of which are tied to the more transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports omicron overtook the delta variant as the dominant strain in the U.S. this week.

“One of the things with this omicron variant is just how fast it’s spreading,” said Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services. “It was first identified just a little over three weeks ago in the United States, and already it’s become the dominant strain that’s circulating. For delta, it took about three months.”

Increase in hospitalizations and cases moved the risk level to the highest for the county

The COVID-19 risk level is a tool for the Dallas County Public Health Committee to measure the spread of the coronavirus and indicate which activities are safe for residents. Dallas County has been at the orange level, which indicates a “moderate risk of transmission,” since the fall.

The public health committee urged the change because of a sharp rise in cases, as well as the current strain on hospitals. In a letter to County Judge Clay Jenkins, the committee reported more than 25% of emergency room visits over the last few days have been related to COVID-19, with more adult and pediatric COVID patients being admitted.

“The hospital emergency departments are [recording] numbers as high as they’ve seen throughout the whole pandemic,” Huang said. “The percentage that are being admitted [is] not as high as it’s been at our peak, but with these record numbers of cases, it’s extremely concerning.”

Many health care leaders are also predicting a surge in cases tied to the omicron variant in January and February.

“What we’ve learned throughout this is that things can pivot on a dime,” Huang said.

'How this plays out depends on how we as a community respond'

The committee recommends a few key mitigation strategies, including increasing vaccination rates, opening more community testing sites, limiting large gatherings and encouraging mask-wearing in public.

“How this plays out depends on how we as a community respond,” Huang said. “We’ve shown we can slow this down when everyone does these things — get vaccinated, wear a mask, avoid crowds. A lot of how the next couple weeks will be depends on how everyone does.”

He encourages people to avoid large gatherings for New Year’s, as crowded indoor events with poor ventilation are “not a good idea.”

Accessing a COVID-19 test

The CDC recommends getting a COVID-19 test if you have been exposed to someone who tested positive, if you’re showing symptoms of COVID-19, or if you have been in close spaces where social distancing was not possible.

Most pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS provide COVID-19 testing by appointment, although many do not currently have same-day appointments due to demand. The Texas Department of State Health Services has also compiled testing location resources across the state. Pharmacies and online retailers sell at-home rapid tests, and federal officials have compiled an online list of approved rapid tests.

Two Dallas College drive-through testing locations are open to the public with no appointment needed. One is at Mountain View Campus, located at 4849 W. Illinois Ave, and the other is at Richland Campus, 12800 Abrams Rd. Both are open Monday-Thursday from 7:30 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Parkland Hospital has opened community-based clinics by appointment. People can get scheduled by calling the COVID-19 patient line at 214-590-8060, or by visiting their COVID-19 testing website.

For Baylor Scott & White Health patients and Methodist Health System patients, people can get COVID-19 testing by scheduling with a primary care doctor.

Got a tip? Email Elena Rivera at erivera@kera.org. You can follow Elena on Twitter @elenaiswriting.

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Elena Rivera is the health reporter at KERA. Before moving to Dallas, Elena covered health in Southern Colorado for KRCC and Colorado Public Radio. Her stories covered pandemic mental health support, rural community health access issues and vaccine equity across the region.