The surge is coming to Central Texas.
As Killeen-area residents returned to work and school last week and started preparing for Christmas, they were confronted with some sobering news.
The coronavirus, which had been on the decline as recently as mid-September, is back in full force, with the Bell County Public Health Department reporting an increase in active cases, showing 355 new infections between Tuesday and Friday of last week.
Since Nov. 23, Bell County has reported 1,065 new cases of the virus and has seen the county’s rolling daily average climb from 36 cases on Nov. 1 to 90 on Friday.
In addition, the county on Friday surpassed 9,000 total cases — an increase of more than 3,000 cases since Oct. 16.
If those local numbers sound alarming, they should. And our county health district director is predicting the situation could get worse, with the largest bump in new cases expected Monday and Tuesday — 10 to 11 days after Thanksgiving, when thousands of Central Texans took part in family gatherings.
Even more sobering is the local death total from the coronavirus, with Bell County recording 10 COVID-associated fatalities last week — bringing the county’s total to 122.
The overall incidence rate is also on the rise, with the countywide average topping 23 cases per 1,000 residents.
With these rising numbers should come a rising awareness of the need to wear a mask, the necessity of social distancing and the importance of hand washing, across the board.
The Herald continues to provide reminders of these coronavirus protocols with a daily front-page graphic reiterating the public’s role in curbing the virus’ spread.
Certainly, awareness of safety protocols is a crucial component of the effort to keep COVID-19 at bay. But the public also needs information about where the virus is peaking and how those spikes are being addressed.
This is being done at the Killeen Independent School District, which provides a dashboard on its website showing a breakdown of where cases of the coronavirus are reported across the district. The dashboard is updated daily, providing totals of active cases for each school campus as well as cases districtwide.
The district also sends texts and emails to parents informing them when a COVID-19 case is reported at their child’s campus. Having that information is essential to parents, who have the option of switching their child to virtual learning at any point in the school year.
Unfortunately, the city of Killeen is providing considerably less information about the virus.
Last week, City Manager Kent Cagle noted in a report to the City Council that 41 city employees were quarantining and nine city employees had tested positive for the coronavirus in the timeframe of Nov. 17 to Dec. 1. That is not a huge number, given the length of the reporting period and the fact that the city has about 1,300 employees.
But the city does not track its virus numbers daily, instead providing an aggregate to the city manager for his twice-monthly reports to the council.
If residents have business at City Hall or any other city-run facility, it would not be unreasonable to ask what the current virus case count is before going inside. But with only 14-day “snapshot” numbers available, residents’ ability to make an informed decision based on the potential health risk is limited.
That information was lacking two weeks earlier, when a Killeen City Council member tested positive for COVID-19 the day after a Tuesday night council meeting.
Mayor Jose Segarra said he found out about the positive test on that Friday and immediately notified the other council members who were present at the meeting.
However, the city didn’t provide the information to residents who were sitting in the audience.
One of the people attending the meeting was the Herald’s Killeen City Hall reporter, and he was not notified of the positive test either.
Granted, audience members were sitting several feet from the council dais, and they were all masked, as the mayor pointed out when questioned. But there was the potential for contact between the infected council member and audience members — including our reporter — before and after the meeting. Knowing this, the city should have issued a public statement on the matter as soon as the council member’s test results were reported.
As a taxing entity, the city of Killeen — and all area cities — owes it to residents to provide updated information on active employee coronavirus cases on a daily basis.
The information should be posted on the city’s website, along with advisories regarding possible exposure to the public.
By all accounts, the city is following solid protocols in dealing with employees who have been or may have been exposed. Mandatory quarantines and contact tracing are key to protecting the city’s workforce.
However, as our community prepares to deal with an anticipated spike in coronavirus cases in the coming weeks, it’s essential that residents have as much information as possible when assessing the risks to themselves and their families.
That means knowing when to go out and when to stay home. It means deciding between entering a business or using a drive-thru window. And it means knowing whether to take the precaution of being tested for the virus if we think we might have been exposed to it.
In addition to following the necessary health protocols, knowing what we are up against will be the key to surviving the expected jump in coronavirus cases this winter. And that knowledge can only come with greater transparency from our local governments, school districts and businesses.
Fortunately, we can look forward to the availability of vaccines to ward off the virus in the coming year, perhaps restoring some semblance of normalcy to our daily lives.
But now is not the time to take our eye off the ball.
We need to step back, wash up and mask up. And most importantly, let’s read up. We can all help ourselves if we know the risks involved in any public activity and how we can best avoid them.
By playing it safe and playing it smart, we can help our community avoid a huge jump in coronavirus infections this winter.
And that’s one Christmas present we’d all like to receive.