Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo sounded the alarm on Friday that without drastic, immediate action, the coronavirus pandemic in our area may reach a point of no return.
“Today, we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation,” Hidalgo warned, moments before she announced that she would upgrade the county COVID-19 threat level to Level 1 at noon Friday, a red alert that asks all residents to stay at home unless absolutely necessary.
Absent at Hidalgo's press conference was Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has scheduled his own remarks for 3 p.m. Friday to address the spread of COVID-19 in the city.
Hidalgo argued the updated public guidance was necessary to curb the massive increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Harris County and across the state, and denounced naysayers who have decried the need to mandate strict public health measures due to allegedly adequate hospital bed supply across Texas.
“When did we lose our respect for human life and the economy,” Hidalgo said, “to the degree that we are saying let’s fill our ICU beds at surge capacity before we take any meaningful action? Since when did we decide as a society that instead of saving a life and preventing the spread of the virus, we would treat human lives, the lives of our neighbors, as collateral damage to be dealt with?”
The upgrade to Level 1, which indicates “a severe and uncontrolled level of COVID-19 in Harris County” was precipitated by troubling hospitalization trends and rapidly growing positive case counts over the past two weeks. Earlier this week, leaders of the Texas Medical Center said that their Houston-area regular ICU capacity was at 100 percent, and that measures were being taken to add new intensive care beds through emergency surge procedures such as converting other hospital units into temporary ICUs.
While several Houston hospital CEOs said they are prepared to implement their surge ICU capacity plans, the area’s hospital capacity could be threatened if the spread of COVID-19 isn’t dramatically reduced soon.
“If this trend continues,” the executives wrote in a letter to the public, “our hospital system capacity will become overwhelmed.” Hidalgo said that the county would be able to set up an emergency medical facility at NRG Park with 48-72 hour notice, but that they wouldn’t do so until absolutely necessary.
Hidalgo thanked Gov. Abbott for his executive order Friday morning that once again closed state bars, reduced restaurant operating capacity to 50 percent, gave local authorities permission to regulate events of over 100 people and shut down rafting and tubing businesses. Still, she expressed blatant skepticism that anything short of a full-on, enforceable stay at home order would be able to prevent an impending disaster.
“Nobody who opposes bold steps is providing me with an alternative interpretation of this data,” said Hidalgo. “Nobody that opposes these steps is providing me with any evidence that something short of a full stay home order will work to avert the crisis right now.”
“Wishful thinking,” she continued, “is neither good public health policy, nor a good economic sustainability policy.”
Shortly after Friday’s press conference, Gov. Abbott announced that the federal government had granted his request to extend funding for FEMA-assisted COVID-19 test sites across Texas, including the City of Houston’s major drive-thru test sites at Delmar Stadium and Butler Stadium. The Trump administration had previously announced that federal funding for all regional test sites across the country would be cut off at the end of June.
The current recommendations from Harris County, Hidalgo said, are for all residents to stay at home if at all possible and only venture out for absolute necessities like groceries and medical needs. Guidelines have been posted on the ReadyHarris.org website that are virtually identical to the stay at home order Hidalgo issued months ago, with one key distinction: they have been rewritten to reflect that they are simply an advisory, as local officials like Hidalgo are still operating under reduced authority after their powers to enact local ordinances related to COVID-19 were drastically limited by Gov. Greg Abbott’s reopening guidelines.
“We need to be especially united, because we’re doing this with one hand tied behind our back,” Hidalgo said.
The county is urging residents to immediately the following actions for residents under alert Level 1:
Stay home, except for the most essential needs like going to the grocery store for food and medicine.
Avoid and cancel all gatherings of any size.
Essential workers practice special precautions to prevent spread.
All vulnerable individuals (65+ or with pre-existing health conditions) stay home.
Self-quarantine for 14 days if in close and prolonged contact with someone who has tested positive with COVID-19.
Wear face coverings to protect others.
Avoid non-essential business and personal travel. Avoid public transportation where possible.
Cancel visits to nursing homes, long-term care facilities, and hospitals.
Avoid and cancel all indoor and outdoor gatherings, including concerts, rodeos, large sporting events, etc. Schools and afterschool activities for youth close, as directed by educational authorities.
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These latest guidelines come several days after Hidalgo ordered county businesses to require the use of face masks by all customers and employees, a loophole for mask use enforcement in the governor’s reopening guidelines which explicitly forbid penalties for individual Texans that local officials across the state have used, including in neighboring Fort Bend and Galveston counties.
Given that the spread of COVID-19 in Harris County and Texas as a whole is drastically worse than when Hidalgo’s original stay at home mandate was issued back in March, Hidalgo stressed that simply flattening the curve of the pandemic isn’t enough at this point, because a plateau in cases and hospitalizations at their current rate would still inundate local and state hospital capacity at a dangerous level. What’s needed, she said, is a significant, sustained drop in the spread of COVID-19.
Hidalgo broadly referenced data she has from other states who kept their stay at home orders in place much longer than Texas had. Without giving specific examples, she said it took between 80 and 90 days in some states for the coronavirus spread to fall from its peak to a sustainable level.
“Wishful thinking got us here,” she said. “So we need to be real. If we want to do this right, we have now examples of what works and doesn’t work.”