In a Friday afternoon COVID-19 update, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner once again begged Houstonians to wear their face masks, but came short of asking them to stay at home just yet.
Turner announced that the Houston Health Department reported 879 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, bringing Houston’s cumulative total to 18,056 cases, and announced eight additional deaths before describing the drastic increase in Houston’s positive test rate.
“I want to underscore that our community’s infection rate is three times higher today than it was three months ago. The positivity rate has gone from 3 percent to over 11 percent,” said Turner. He also confirmed that ICU occupancy and the number of young people infected are both continuing to increase, and that the current COVID-19 caseload within the city is the highest it has ever been.
Turner expressed his support of Gov. Abbott’s moves earlier today to re-close bars and clubs, reduce restaurant capacity rates and reauthorize local officials to ban events of over 100 people if they so choose. However, he conspicuously did not endorse Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s insistence earlier on Friday that area residents stay at home when at all possible.
“Businesses are staying open, so there’s no stay home order, but there are occupancy limits, and social distancing is important and wearing masks,” Turner said before once again describing his plan for a public “wall of shame” for businesses caught flaunting occupancy and face mask rules that would be showcased on City of Houston social media channels and during future COVID-19 press briefings.
When asked more explicitly about whether or not he supported Hidalgo’s stay at home recommendation, he seemingly shrugged the issue off before again expressing support for Abbott’s latest reopening rollbacks.
“We don’t have the authority to put forth a stay home order,” Turner said. “The fact that clubs and bars, their activities being suspended, that’s a good thing. Reducing the occupancy for restaurants from 75 to 50 percent, that’s a good thing.”
He then reiterated that public health measures like wearing masks and social distancing will help curb the spread of the virus, and that his administration will “continue to look at the numbers” before recommending any further precautions residents should take.
Turner had previously joined Hidalgo in joint press conferences announcing a face mask order for businesses and the unveiling of the Harris County COVID-19 Threat Level alert system, but was absent from her Friday press conference during which she urged county residents to stay at home and raised the county threat level to its most dire rating.
Houston’s COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Czar Marvin Odum chimed in with a blunt assessment of the pandemic’s local spread.
“I’m not one to use incendiary or exaggerated language in any way. (But) this virus is out of control in Houston. If we don’t act to get it under control, very bad, extremely bad things will happen,” said Odum, who then asked Houstonians to take the “simple” measures of wearing face masks, practicing social distancing and keeping their hands clean.
“There’s nothing political about this. Doing these simple things means in my mind that you respect other Houstonians,” he said, “and it means that you are in favor of returning to the strong economy that we’ve enjoyed for so long.”
The Houston Health Department’s Dr. David Persse was similarly curt in his appraisal of the recent trends in the state of the pandemic in Houston.
“Here in Houston, we did a tremendous job of keeping this virus under control, right until we didn’t,” Persse said before again imploring Houstonians to use masks, practice social distancing and wash their hands frequently. He also explained that while he welcomed the measures that Gov. Abbott implemented today like closing bars and restaurants, it might be awhile before we see their actual effectiveness.
“From a public health standpoint, when you make an intervention into a community, it usually takes about two weeks to see that intervention in the numbers. This virus is so insidious that we aren’t seeing the impact until three to four weeks sometimes,” Persse said.
On the topic of regional testing capabilities, Persse clarified a statement from Gov. Abbott earlier Friday announcing that the Trump administration had agreed to continue funding Texas testing sites after June 30, contrary to their prior plan to stop supporting regional facilities.
Persse explained that the federal government has only committed to sustain funding for another two weeks after the end of the month, whereas Abbott did not specify a time frame for how long the funding would continue come July. This federal cash will help fund City of Houston testing centers at Delmar Stadium and Butler Stadium as well as the two Harris County-run test sites, but city and county officials have said publicly that the sites would remain open even if federal funding runs dry.
One new face at the press conference was Dr. Peter Hotez, the esteemed epidemiologist and vaccine researcher at the Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital who dialed-in via video.
Hotez applauded Turner for his commitment to ensuring testing is available for low-income Houstonians. He was less happy with the Trump administration’s characterization of Texas and Arizona as coronavirus “hotspots” currently undergoing “outbreaks” ahead of planned visits by Vice President Mike Pence to both states in coming days.
“I think it tended to not convey the full extent of what we’re facing in the United States,” Hotez said. “We are seeing a massive resurgence in major metropolitan areas.”
“The models at times are, I don’t want to say apocalyptic, but they’re very, very concerning,” he continued, citing some forecasts that predict 3,000-4,000 new COVID-19 cases per day in Houston in mid-July as a worst-case scenario.
Hotez warned that while many coronavirus vaccine candidates are currently in development, including one from his own lab, he estimated that it might not be until the third-quarter of 2021 that any sort of vaccine might be publicly available. Even then, he said, a strong public health infrastructure would be crucial since “the initial vaccines may not be the best in terms of giving the highest levels of protection” based on his knowledge of the vaccine development process.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding by the public on how these vaccines will work,” Hotez said. “At least to begin with, they may not be replacement technologies; they will be companion technologies, along with a lot of the public health infrastructure.”
Mayor Turner said one of his main goals is to make sure his constituents have the most accurate information possible about the ongoing crisis, especially when the stats are as frightening as the ones we’ve seen in recent days and can expect in the near future.
“People need to know the actual facts and what the truth is,” Turner said, “and then they can govern their actions accordingly.”