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Should Harris County lower its threat level?

Maybe?

According to Harris County’s COVID-19 guidance, residents should avoid all unnecessary contact with others. They should not go to bars or barbecues or ballgames. They should work from home if possible and leave only for errands, such as groceries or medicine.

Hardly any of the county’s 4.8 million residents appear to be following this advice now. Gov. Greg Abbott fully reopened Texas last month and nixed the mask mandate. Youth sports have resumed, houses of worship again welcome in-person parishioners and 21,765 fans attended the Astros home opener at Minute Maid Park.

Yet, for 42 consecutive weeks, Harris County has been at its highest COVID-19 threat level, red, even though the virus metrics here have improved significantly since January and other counties have relaxed their guidance for residents. Though local officials have no authority to issue COVID-19 restrictions, Harris appears to be the only of Texas’s 254 counties to still urge residents to remain at home.

The county’s two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, this week urged Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo to reconsider the threat-level criteria. The pair also have resumed attending court meetings in person, which they say can be done safely, while the three Democrats join virtually and require members of the public to do so, as well.

[…]

Since moving to level red last June, Harris County never has met all the criteria to move to the second-highest level, orange, including 14-day averages of: A positivity rate below 5 percent, daily new cases below 400 and COVID-19 patients occupying less than 15 percent of hospital ICU capacity. As of Wednesday, those metrics stood at 8.7 percent, 434 and 15.1 percent.

The glass-half-full view of these numbers is that each has declined significantly from January’s post-holiday spike. Both the number of COVID-19 patients occupying ICU beds and positivity rate have dropped by more than half, and the daily new case average is down 83 percent.

The more cautious approach, which Hidalgo favors, considers that the governor fully reopened the state over the objection of one of his medical advisers, herd immunity that is still months away and the presence of several virus variants in Houston that are a wild card.

Commissioner Ramsey points out that multiple school districts in his precinct are back to mostly in-person classes, which Commissioner Cagle notes that if you’re at the highest threat level all the time, it’s hard to turn the volume up when things do get worse. (I like to think of it as the “These go to eleven” justification.) Judge Hidalgo points to the fact that less than twenty percent of the county is fully vaccinated (this is counting all residents, not just those sixteen and older who are able to get the vaccine) and there are major outbreaks in places like Michigan that stand as cautionary tales for easing up too quickly. I’ll get to all this in a minute, but first we should note the irony of this story appearing on the same day as this story.

The Astros will be without four key players — Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Martin Maldonado – indefinitely because of MLB’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

The loss of those four, plus infielder Robel Garcia, is a brutal blow for a team already in a mid-April funk and a reminder that baseball is still operating in a pandemic.

The fivesome went on the COVID-19 related injured list prior to Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Tigers. Astros general manager James Click could not confirm whether the team has had a positive test. Players or staff who test positive for the virus must give their team permission to disclose a diagnosis.

“It’s just a challenge for the rest of our guys to pick us up and get us back on the right track,” Click said before Wednesday’s game at Minute Maid Park. “We’ve obviously scuffled a little bit the past four games. When it rains it pours. It’s a difficult situation.”

Placement on the COVID-19 injured list does not automatically indicate a positive test. There is no minimum or maximum length of stay. The list is also reserved for players or staffers exposed to someone who has had a positive test, those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, or those experiencing adverse effects of the COVID-19 vaccine. Manager Dusty Baker revealed that all five players “had at least their first shots.”

The Rice women’s volleyball team had to drop out of the NCAA tournament because of COVID protocols as well. Just a reminder, you’re not fully vaxxed until two weeks after the second shot. If it can happen to them, well…

Anyway. I don’t think Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle are making faulty or bad faith arguments. Their points are reasonable, and I’m sure a lot of people see it their way. Judge Hidalgo is also right, and the fact that Harris County hasn’t actually met any of the metrics to put it below the “red alert” threshold should mean something. To some extent this is a matter of risk tolerance, but I do find myself on the side of not redefining one’s own longstanding metrics for the sake of convenience. It seems likely to me that if everything continues along the same trends in the county, we should meet the standard for lowering the threat level soon. And if we don’t – if our caseloads continue to stay at the same level or tick back up, even if hospitalizations are down and even as we vaccinate more and more people – I think that should tell us something. Campos has more.

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4 Comments

  1. Jason Hochman says:

    Yes, the silly red threat level is a facile and un-nuanced system stolen from the failed Bush administration’s color coded terrorist attack fear level, which also never moved from red. At some point, it becomes like your neighbor’s car alarm that goes off every morning at 3:30. You stop noticing it, and, then, when the wolf comes, there is no response.

    Since the red threat level was activated, like, a year ago, or something, there have been scads of new data. I was one of the first adopters of the mask concept, and then, one of the first to reject it, based on The Science and The Facts. I just hope that Joe Biden doesn’t make another trip back to Houston. He would plotz on the spot as he observed the bars packed to the gills, and the people out and about, before the end of his “100 Day Mask Challenge.” And if he saw the large gatherings going on before he agreed to ease his jackboot off the collective throats of the US to allow a small backyard gathering with masks and distancing on July 4th; well, if he saw that, he’d take his jackboots and head back to Scranton.

    Meantime, the Campos blog seems to praise Biden’s boss, Mrs. Harris, for not holding a press conference about the Border Crisis:
    “Some folks on Twitter like Fox News try to badger Vice President Kamala Harris into doing a press conference about the border. These guys don’t get it. The VP isn’t like Donald Trump who listened to the likes of Fox News. The VP and the Joe Biden Administration are going to act responsibly.”

    So, let me get this straight. It is responsible to ignore the press? What happened to the great new era of a “return to normalcy” and “transparency?”
    Where is the transparency? Why isn’t Mrs. Harris even visiting the border yet? Why isn’t she being transparent and taking the press on a tour of the cages with the children wrested from their parents? Why is Campos OK with this? We need to get Trump back in office, so that the suffering kids in cages will get some attention and perhaps someone will help them.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    Jason,

    Good post. The Branch Covidians are finding themselves more and more irrelevant as time goes by and more and more people make the personal decision to begin living life again. Hopefully soon, it will just be Dora and Sly standing on a street corner somewhere shouting at the Moon, with passers by walking by, not making eye contact, and pitying them.

  3. policywonqueria says:

    COLOR CODING

    The Harris County COVID threat dial is merely a heuristic device to communicate threat levels to the public, with the goal of promoting good health behavior and curtailing virus spread. It’s not a substantive policy in and of itself.

    If the merits of this *mass communications* component of the pandemic response are up for debate, this should be kept in mind. It’s all about the *messaging* to the public at large. It’s about visualization of something that is not directly observable.

    Some other jurisdictions in the world (Mexico, Europe) decided to use a traffic-light system (red, amber, yellow, green) to denote threat levels in particular areas. Same basic idea; different visual actualization. It’s a simplification of a composite assessment derived from multiple metrics used to track pandemic severity over time in defined areas. Or, it could be based on the R naught value, if the data necessary for confident estimation is collected on an ongoing basis.

    Since the criteria for the Harris County threat level dial were pre-defined, they should be adhered to, unless something has fundamentally changed that renders the concept of assessing pandemic threat at the community-wide level useless. In that case, the dial should be thrown out altogether.

    POLITICAL RE-CALIBRATION ?

    If the needle on the dial is moved by majority vote of a multi-member body (Commissioners Court), it becomes less credible as an accurate representation of the state of the pandemic in the local area. And credibility is important here because virus propagation — unlike weather and temperature — cannot be experienced by the residential population directly, using their own senses. It’s all cognitive.

    Worse if the needle on the dial is moved by party-line vote. The virus itself is not partisan and has it’s own spread dynamic.

    RESIDUAL UTILITY OF CODE RED

    It’s probably true that most people by now ignore the Harris County COVID dial (while many still continue to engage in good health behavior, such as mask wearing and caution in interpersonal interactions).

    Still, if the pre-set criteria have not been met to move us out of the red zone, the needle should stay there, rather than be overridden through a political decision. Even if it is widely disregarded and has lost effectiveness.

    The official designation of local COVID risk in as “RED” can still serve a useful purpose by providing quasi-legal support for businesses that chose to require mask use on premises in the absence of a statewide mandate. They can point to the official threat-level gauge reading to justify their individual policy on their premises.

    https://respondglobal.com/traffic-light-covid-alert-system/ (biz adoption of traffic-light system for threat-level communication)

  4. Jason Hochman says:

    wonqueria, you are correct that the level should stay where it is based on the metrics that were defined at the time. But I don’t know where they are getting such a high positivity rate. The TMC dashboard has been below 5% for a few weeks now. But the county is up at 8 or 9%.

    However, keep in mind that these metrics need to be adjusted. Remember two weeks to flatten the curve? The curve was flattened, but more than a year later, here we are. Remember when the vaccines come, we can get back to normal? Vaccines are here, but now we are supposed to wear TWO masks!

    The fact is, that this is not the deadliest disease ever. IN fact, we have had a year to see that most people who get it have a cold or flu like illness that resolves on its own. The news is determined, though, to tell us about the worst cases, without letting us know the rarity of such cases.

    They are never going to let this go. It is giving too many people too much money and too much power. Look at Canada. If you come back to Canada, from another country, then you are forced to isolate. You must get tested. If you test positive, you go to an internment camp, with no release date specified. If you try to resist, you go to prison or pay a one million dollar fine, with no due process. Ontario is shut down. If they police see you out, they can stop you and question you. I’m sure that they are using that to hunt down minorities in Ontario. I think that the US should attack Canada in a war, and give Trudeau the Saddam treatment. Then, we can liberate the Quebecois from English oppression, and then, we can take the rest of the Canadians and make them work on our infrastructure. Instead, Biden is tilting us to a new Cold War and perhaps a real war with Russia, which might even get us nuked.