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Q&A: Dallas' COVID-19 Czar Talks About Testing, Disparities And Why Cases Still Aren't Under Control

Photo of a man handing a woman in a booth his self-administered COVID-19 test
Associated Press
Parkland Hospital employees collect a self-administered test sample from a man at a COVID-19 walk-up testing site in Dallas on June 11, 2020.

Testing wait times in Dallas have significantly improved, but testing accessibility still isn't where Dr. Kelvin Baggett wants it to be, the head of the city's COVID-19 response said.

In May, Mayor Eric Johnson named Baggett, the managing director of an investment firm and a doctor trained in public health, as the city's COVID-19 Health and Healthcare Access Czar.

Baggett talked to us about why case numbers keep fluctuating, what's driving inequities in access to coronavirus care, if he expects more money to help continue tackling the virus — and what a COVID czar is.

KERA's Sam Baker: What exactly does the COVID-19 czar do?

Dr. Kelvin Baggett, Dallas’ COVID czar: My responsibility is to do everything I can to inform decisions that will reduce harm and suffering to those in Dallas, specifically during this very novel virus. Part of that charge is to also make sure that resources are equitably distributed — that testing is available, that contact tracing is available, that services are known and available to those who need and require them.

Baker: So is a COVID-19 test now readily accessible, easily accessible to anybody in Dallas County who wants one or needs one?

Baggett: Well, I wouldn't say that it's as accessible as we want it to be, but it has improved significantly. We've defined accessibility as being within a certain distance for walking. What we have done is establish sites that are walkable, that are drivable, and we've drastically reduced our turnaround times.

"Until we get a level of consistency in distancing, hand hygiene and mask wearing, we should expect that we will see some fluctuations."

The wait times have gotten significantly lower to the extent that most of the sites we have now do not have wait times. So in that sense, I'd say it's a lot more accessible than it ever was. It continues to improve as we establish additional sites, as well.

Baker: Daily numbers for new cases of coronavirus now remain below 1,000 or so, but then they move up and down. So why are we having problems now bringing that under control, do you think?

Baggett: I think there are a few things that are contributing to that.

  • One is we're still having some pockets of outbreaks where individuals are choosing not to maintain distance and not adhering to masking.
  • Two is, with this increased mobility, we're going back into environments where we're having some increased reopening activity. Although we've decreased it overall, we still have some who are going more into workplaces and other environments where it's spread.
  • And what happens is you usually have a tail, or a lag in terms of the number of confirmed cases that are occurring.

Until we get a level of consistency in distancing, hand hygiene and mask wearing, we should expect that we will see some fluctuations.
Baker: This pandemic has certainly shed a light, though, on disparities, inequities in health care access for people of color. Were you surprised at what you found when you took this job?

Baggett: No, I wasn't completely surprised. I wasn't surprised because you could examine who has the highest disease burden, who lives in areas where they lack health care access and who has other risk factors — those are the individuals you would believe to be most vulnerable.

And an additional layer is that, it’s the essential workers who have the greatest amount of exposure.

Baker: The Dallas City Council, and I'm sure the Dallas commissioner's court too, are discussing new budgets for the upcoming year. As far as you know, do either of those spending plans include any money to help you do your job?

Baggett: Well, I don't know the specifics of the current budget conversations, but I do suspect that the CARES Act funding will be part of that as well. Those funds were directed specifically towards addressing COVID-19 in the community.

So my expectation is yes, there will be some resources and support so that we can combat this effectively.

More About Dr. Baggett, Dallas' COVID-19 Czar

▸ Dr. Baggett's guide to protesting safely during the COVID-19 pandemic

▸ Named one of Modern Healthcare's 50 Most Influential Clinical Executives in 2015

▸ D Magazine: A Conversation With Dallas’ COVID-19 Czar

This Q&A was edited for clarity.

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.