Hospitalizations, percentage of positive tests among keys in quest to reopen Delaware

DOVER — As Delawareans deal with the financial ramifications of COVID-19 and the ensuing shutdown, many have wondered what exactly officials are considering as they judge when to reopen.

While some people, especially small business owners and Republican lawmakers, would like to see the state loosen restrictions immediately, Gov. John Carney has repeatedly said he will reopen based on data. Following guidelines from the White House, the governor wants the state to check several boxes before lifting his shutdown orders.

The White House plan calls for a decline in flu-like illnesses and coronavirus cases over a 14-day period, as well as the ability to test at-risk health care workers and treat all hospital patients without stressing the health care system.

Before Delaware reaches that point, it must expand its testing, increase its ability to trace cases, ensure there is enough protective equipment for health care workers and have businesses and individuals follow social distancing mandates and other orders aimed at stopping the spread.

While some of those may be difficult to quantify, the Division of Public Health characterized the state as being critically low in surgical masks, gloves and gowns, and officials have said on multiple occasions Delaware is well short of the number of tests required. Additionally, DPH Director Karyl Rattay said last week Delaware aims to hire around 200 people to help trace the paths of individuals who test positive for COVID-19 so contacts can be notified, another step that must be completed prior to reopening.

Gov. Carney initially said Delaware would be looking for a decline in the number of new cases for 14 consecutive days, but because the state has already expanded its testing capabilities, he no longer stands by that metric. Instead, he said Tuesday during an update on the situation here, he’s basing his decisions in large part off the two-week trends for total hospitalizations and new hospitalizations, as well as rolling five-day averages for the percentage of tests that come back positive and new positive cases.

While he’s pointed to total hospitalizations and the number of new cases several times over the past weeks, the governor had not previously detailed his chosen metrics as he did Tuesday.

As of Monday, it appears officials were still working to determine what exactly the key indicators would be. A DPH spokeswoman wrote in an email that day, “Delaware is still working through determining what metrics will be used and have not finalized the plans yet.”

Hospitalization statistics are important for several reasons. For one, keeping the rate low should reduce the death toll. Additionally, it prevents overtaxing the state’s hospitals, a major worry at the beginning of the outbreak in March. It’s also a “tangible” measurement, the impact of which is easy to understand, Gov. Carney noted.

Charts presented by the governor Tuesday indicate a steep decline in new hospitalizations over the past two weeks, while the number of people currently hospitalized has remained largely flat. A smaller percentage of Delawareans are testing positive, and the number of new cases announced each day has been on a general downturn recently.

“The indicators that we’re watching for 14-day trends are trending in a positive direction,” Gov. Carney said.

The number of new hospitalizations, for instance, has gone from 24 on April 29 to 14 the next day and then remained in single digits each of the following four days.

Much of the data officials are using is available at Delaware’s My Healthy Community Portal.

The governor expressed hope Tuesday the state can move to the first phase outlined by the White House by the end of the month. That step calls for continued social distancing and minimal non-essential travel, with at-risk individuals remaining home. Businesses can reopen in phases, with telework encouraged, though schools will remain closed.

Visits to senior centers and hospitals should still be prohibited, the recommendations say, although large venues like churches and movie theaters can operate with strict policies around social distancing.

Under the second phase, which follows another 14-day period of declining cases, more restrictions are lifted. The third phase, which requires three consecutive 14-day decreases, essentially returns society to where it was before the outbreak, although people should expect some changes compared to the pre-COVID era.

Officials are hopeful life can gradually regain some semblance of normality, but Delaware is not out of the woods yet by any means.

“Our ability to follow the social distancing rules will enable us to open more,” Gov. Carney said.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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