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Leading Coronavirus Response, Dallas County's Clay Jenkins Relies On Science, Seeks Solace In Faith

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins
Christopher Connelly
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins

Each time Clay Jenkins steps to the podium for a press conference, the Dallas County judge begins with a grim duty: An update on new cases of COVID-19 and a list of the dead. No names are given, but the age, gender and hometown are identified.

"Unfortunately, today is our deadliest day of COVID thus far. It is also our biggest day of COVID cases thus far," Jenkins said at last Tuesday’s conference in a drab media room at the county’s emergency operations center. Days later, the county set a new record for the number of new confirmed cases.

The day’s address included 135 new cases of the disease, and 10 new deaths. They ranged from a 17-year-old girl from Lancaster to a 90-year-old nursing home resident from Dallas.

Beyond this somber recitation at the start of his news conferences, Jenkins uses the public appearances to urge his 2.6 million constituents to make good decisions. He offers epidemiology in simple language and advice.

Last week’s conference came on the heels of Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcementof plans to reopen Texas. The governor’s order overturned the judge’s plans to keep the country’s eighth largest county hunkered down for at least two weeks longer.

“We're going to see more and more movement out there. And we're going to see more and more opportunity for asymptomatic COVIDs to bump into you and get you sick,” Jenkins said. “And so the question that you got to ask yourself is ‘What's the best decision for me and my family?’”

Jenkins said he didn’t think the science supported the decision to start reopening businesses so quickly. It wasn’t the first time the Democratic county judge had disagreed with the Republican governor, but Jenkins didn’t want to dwell on the politics. Instead, he offered a plea for residents to exercise good judgement and sit tight, delivered in his stolid drawl.

“It's not what we're allowed to do, it's what public health and what the CDC tells us we should do," he said. "If as many of us as possible will follow that, that's the surest way to get our economy moving again."

No Stranger To The Spotlight

Of all the people in North Texas, Jenkins has been perhaps the most public face in the regional coronavirus response. He earned praise — and some criticism — for moving early and aggressively to slow the spread of the virus, charting a path that put his county ahead of the state in addressing the public health threat.

Operating in the spotlight during a public health crisis is not new for Jenkins. In 2014, when an Ebola outbreak put Dallas on edge, his response was national news. He navigated the moment with the same calm and detailed public messaging and focus on following the advice of infectious disease specialists.

That recipe for handling public health emergencies was set in 2012, when Jenkins authorized aerial spraying to kill mosquitoes in an effort to combat West Nile virus in the county. The decision drew criticism and put him at odds with a political ally, but Jenkins says public health experts were clear: Without the spraying, more people would get sick.

“I made my peace early on in dealing with public health emergencies, that my job is to follow the science, and then to act decisively because science is the playbook,” Jenkins told KERA in an interview. "It's what we have to put our faith in in a public health emergency.”

When COVID-19 Hit Dallas County

In late January, as the first U.S. cases of the novel coronavirus were confirmed in Washington State, then Illinois, California and Arizona, Jenkins grew increasingly concerned. Even as the president downplayed the virus’ risks, Jenkins began consulting health experts and preparing, “because we knew if it got here, it would be bad,” he says.

In mid-March, with five confirmed cases in Dallas County, Jenkins declared a public health emergency and began issuing a series of increasingly restrictive orders. Two weeks later, he issued the most restrictive stay-at-home order in Texas, prodding other counties — and the governor — to follow suit.

When neighboring Collin County’s order didn’t go as far as Jenkins wanted, he called them out. While county judges, the top elected officials in county government, are given great authority in times of emergencies, their authority stops at the county borders.

“I'm sure I ruffled a lot of feathers and hurt feelings. And that was not my intention; my intention was to save as many lives as possible,” Jenkins says.

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley says he gets along well with his counterpart in Dallas County, but Jenkins’ style can come across as less-than-collaborative.

“I think Clay feels very adamant about what he is doing, and he feels he is doing the right thing,” Whitley says.

Whitley recounted a call with a group of North Texas county judges when he says Jenkins told everyone he was ordering face masks be worn in public in Dallas County, and told the rest of the judges they should do the same.

“To me, that is not sitting down and talking through something and asking people’s advice, it just says ‘Here, I am gonna do, I want you to follow me,’” Whitley says.

The mask order also set off tensions at the Dallas County Commissioners Court, which forced Jenkins into an emergency meeting to explain himself. Commissioners John Wiley Price and JJ Koch grilled Jenkins for issuing the order without enough consultation of them and other local officials.

These pitched battles have become a regular part of meetings of the five-member county governing board. Commissioners Court meetings in Dallas County have grown increasingly tense, as Price and Koch find themselves increasingly at odds with Jenkins’ authority and cautious approach. The judge says he values their perspectives.

“It's asking a lot of elected officials when the law says in unprecedented times the judge has great authority and discretion,” Jenkins says. “This thing is lasting a long, long time. And so I have to exhibit grace and do my best to hear those voices that don't necessarily agree with me.”

'Life-And-Death Decisions'

The stepson of a Baptist minister, Jenkins says his faith has kept him centered. He reads Bible verses for 15 minutes every morning when he wakes up. Throughout the day, he seeks counsel from a broad range of sources.

“It is a lot of life-and-death decisions every day, and that can be a burden. But I'm surrounded by people who give me good advice,” Jenkins says. “I had an imam, a rabbi, and two pastors call me today. And each of them prayed with me and I prayed with them.”

In the end though, while he seeks solace in faith, Jenkins says he’ll continue to root his county’s coronavirus response in science.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.