A large, ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 places the Houston area on the second-highest of four public threat levels unveiled by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday.
If troubling trends continue, including an increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, the county health department again would recommend residents stay at home except for essential errands, such as buying groceries and medicine, she said.
Without criticizing Gov. Greg Abbott directly, she said the reopening of businesses he permitted to begin May 1 happened too quickly, leaving the Houston area at risk of an outbreak hospitals are unable to handle.
“I want the reopening to be successful. I want the economy to be resilient,” Hidalgo said. “But I am growing increasingly concerned that we may be at the precipice of a disaster.”
The county judge said she wanted to create an easy-to-understand chart for the public to replace a series of lengthy advisories and orders her administration has issued to date.
The county currently is at Level 2 of the color-coded chart produced by the county health department, with Level 1 being the most severe.
Level 2 is defined by ongoing transmission of the virus, with testing and contact tracing likely to meet demand. It states that residents should avoid unnecessary contact with others, avoid crowds and visit only businesses that are following public health guidelines.
Coronavirus cases in the Houston area have increased steadily since Memorial Day weekend, and COVID-19 hospitalizations reached an all-time high last week. Harris County had 9,296 active cases and 267 deaths as of Thursday.
Hospitals in the 25-county Houston region were using 88 percent of their ICU capacity as of Wednesday, and the system has never exceeded 100 percent. City of Houston health authority Dr. David Persse, however, said the situation at individual facilities is more dire. He expressed particular concern about the two public hospitals in the Harris Health System, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ben Taub.
During the county’s stay-at-home period, local ICU bed usage often was below 80 percent.
New: #Houston area has hit a new record for #COVID hospitalizations, with 1,101.
ICU usage 88% (hit 90% at one point last week)
— Zach Despart (@zachdespart) 4:11 PM – 12 June 2020
But don’t worry, Greg Abbott is concerned but not alarmed.
Two weeks ago, Gov. Greg Abbott visited Amarillo to declare victory over a coronavirus outbreak that had wreaked havoc on the Panhandle.
Showcasing dwindling caseloads and a stable supply of hospital beds, he said the region’s success was indicative of a state moving forward amid a containable pandemic.
“Amarillo has turned a corner on its pathway toward a positive, effective resolution of this particular hotspot,” Abbott remarked, applauding local officials and the “surge” teams of medical and military staffers that have become a hallmark of his reopening playbook.
But as one problem subsided, others newly emerged. Cases in Texas have since ballooned to record highs, and hospitals in Houston, San Antonio and other major cities are filling once more with COVID-19 patients. On Friday, as Abbott allowed restaurants to open at near-full capacity, the public health nightmare seemed to only be growing.
The governor, though — one of the first to relax his state’s stay-at-home order — is pushing ahead. “Concerned but not alarmed” was how he and his surrogates put it this week, even as fellow governors in Oregon and Utah pumped the brakes on their reopenings amid rising caseloads.
“This was to be expected,” said Abbott, a Republican, in a television interview on Wednesday. “Many of these cases we’re seeing have been in the aftermath of the Memorial Day weekend, and some are the early part of when these protests began.”
John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, said responsibility ultimately lies with the public.
“Texans have done a good job so far, but the reality is people need to stay vigilant,” he said. “Summer is here and everyone wants to go to the pool, but COVID has not left the state. People need to social distance, they need to wear masks.”
Seems like a lot to ask of the public when the consistent message from its leaders is “we’re reopening, it’s safe to go to bars and waterparks and gyms and whatever else again”. Greg Abbott listed four key metrics. We only ever met one, and that’s hospital capacity. We’re still short on contact tracers, which may not matter anyway since a significant portion of the population won’t cooperate with them anyway. As of a month ago, we were near the bottom of state testing per capita; I can’t find any more recent numbers than that. If Abbott ever does get alarmed, we’re well and truly screwed. The Trib has more.