On Tuesday afternoon, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo once again urged county residents to limit their contacts with the outside world ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday and as COVID-19 continues to ravage our community.
Due to the troubling trends in the local COVID-19 test positivity rate, steadily rising local coronavirus hospitalizations and a 250 percent increase in the average number of daily new cases in Harris County since late September, Hidalgo begged county residents to only gather for Thanksgiving with people in their immediate households, and to get tested for COVID-19 regardless of holiday plans.
“No one day-to-day change has been dramatic, but if you look at the trends, they’re alarming and they’re deadly,” Hidalgo said.
Hidalgo also announced that her office would send out an emergency alert to all smartphones in Harris County with those two messages, which went out just after 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.
She acknowledged that many county residents seem to be letting their guards down after months of social distancing and mask wearing which is likely part of why this region’s coronavirus numbers have been on the climb in recent weeks, and while she understood that people are getting tired of pandemic life, she stressed that giving up on the fight at this point will only lead to more death, suffering and economic pain in the future.
On Tuesday, Harris County Public Health announced that the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases countywide had hit 175,959, and that the county’s death toll had reached 2,364 since the beginning of the pandemic.
“I know we’re more than eight months into this crisis, and as a community, we’ve been beat up and bruised, we’ve grown tired, and we’re hungry to get back to normal," Hidalgo said. "It’s human nature to get complacent, to want to give in, to be tired. That’s normal. But we can’t do that right now.”
The Houston area has been lucky so far in that the pandemic hasn’t worsened to the levels of its previous local peak back in July when our hospitals were close to overrun, or as bad as things are currently in El Paso, where inundated hospitals have had to ration care and put dead COVID-19 victims in mobile refrigerated morgues.
But Hidalgo said it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that things could get that harrowing once again here — or as bad as in El Paso — if the community doesn’t band together and take greater precautions immediately.
Hidalgo was joined by Dr. Umair Shah, Harris County Public Health’s top executive and the main public health expert leading the county’s coronavirus response. Earlier on Tuesday, the health department announced that Shah will be leaving his role in mid-December to join Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration as the state’s new Secretary of Health.
Shah thanked Hidalgo and his county public health colleagues — “It’s never been about the ‘me,’ it’s about the ‘we,’ it’s about our team,” he said — and sent a parting message that if the pandemic has been a football game, county residents should think about the upcoming holidays as only halftime.
“We are still in this pandemic, and what we do during halftime, what we do during the holidays, is going to be absolutely critical for the path forward in 2021,” Shah said.
Without mentioning Gov. Greg Abbott by name, Hidalgo sharply criticized the state-level coronavirus response and Abbott’s constant reshuffling of which COVID-19 metric to base businesses openings on.
“They started with cases, and then moved to hospitalizations, and then went to positivity rate, and now it’s back at hospitalizations. We can’t pick and choose metrics,” she said. “We’ve got to collect parameters [and] thresholds, and stick with the restrictions until the numbers look better, and once we get there, open only a little bit, not open everything.”
In another thinly-veiled Abbott jab, Hidalgo criticized unnamed leaders who, like Abbott has, tend to only focus on the need for personal responsibility and individual behavior like mask-wearing and social distancing in their messaging about fighting COVID-19 without acknowledging the role government could play in imposing local restrictions that could save lives.
“I’m not gonna minimize the importance of that. As you know, I’m a huge advocate for those things. But we need to stop pretending that masks and vague calls of social distancing are a silver-bullet solution,” she said. Hidalgo has previously attempted to issue local lockdown orders to slow the spread of COVID-19, but she and all Texas local officials had that authority stripped away by Abbott months ago.
Hidalgo said Abbott is well aware of her concerns about the rapidly worsening coronavirus metrics in Harris County, but she clearly feels that the state isn’t taking the crisis seriously enough, which is why she decided to go directly to the people with her remarks and emergency alert message Tuesday.
“We’re working with the governor’s office consistently… He knows of my perspective on all of this, and that’s why I’m going to the community to say we can’t wait for action,” Hidalgo said. “I’m not going to push the community until the hospitals are overwhelmed and we lose 1,200 people in a month yet again unless we do something, so that’s why I’m here today pleading with you all.”