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With 5 More COVID-19 Cases, Dallas County Declares Emergency, Bans Large Gatherings

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins speaks at a late-night press conference Thursday.

Dallas County announced Thursday night that five more people are "presumptive positive" cases of COVID-19. The county's top executive officially declared it an emergency, saying public gatherings of 500 or more people will be prohibited starting at 11 a.m. Friday. The ban will continue, for now, until 11 a.m. on March 20.

County Judge Clay Jenkins made the announcement, describing the order as a public health emergency declaration.

The new cases come amid a worldwide outbreak of the disease caused by a coronavirus. In Dallas County, there are now eight cases of COVID-19. The latest victims were identified only as two women -- one in her 60s and one in her 70s -- and three men -- one in his 40s, one in his 50s and one in his 60s. Jenkins said two of the latest victims are hospitalized and three are self-isolating at home.

“It’s imperative that the public do their part,” said Jenkins, who also led the response to the Ebola crisis in 2014. “I know our Dallas County residents always rise to the challenge.”

One of the cases is suspected to be "community spread" -- the first North Texas case not directly related to travel.

The county's health and human services director, Philip Huang, said, "While we are disheartened by likely community spread, this was expected given what we have seen in other communities around the county and the world."

Jenkins said that in addition to the ban on gatherings of more than 500, the county is also strongly discouraging public or private gatherings of 250 or more.

He also asked people to avoid group gatherings of 10 or more that include people in high-risk groups – people over 60 and those with underlying health conditions.

“It is a very serious situation and one that will be getting a lot worse before it gets better,” Jenkins said. “But how well we fare as a community will directly depend on all of us – and not just following gathering orders but to use our brains as we’re all very good at doing in this community. And ask yourself the question as you do things: Is this worth the risk, not just to me but to the community?”

The public gathering order doesn’t include places like movie theaters, schools or office buildings where 500 or more people are not confined in one area.

The Dallas school district announced earlier in the evening that it will have school Friday, the day before spring break, but will cancel all extracurricular activities.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.