"This is not the time to take the masks down," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Monday, after reporting seven more deaths and 914 new COVID-19 cases in the city. "These numbers are real."
He was responding to a question about Texas Governor Greg Abbott's recent statements that he may be ready to drop the requirement for wearing masks in public. Abbott has scheduled a press conference in a Lubbock restaurant for 1:30 Tuesday to make a statewide announcement without saying what it will specifically concern.
Much of Monday's press conference covered the news that while the city's COVID positivity rate is headed the right way — it's at 11.8 percent which is down from more than 20 percent in the holiday period — that examination of wastewater shows the variants are here.
Dr. David Persse, chief medical officer for the city of Houston, said recent samplings show the UK variant which is believed to spread more easily than the original version of the virus, is here. And a recent study by Houston Methodist examining samples from patients with the coronavirus showed the Brazilian variant is here. In fact, Methodist researchers have concluded, Houston is the first U.S. city to have documented that all the mutations of COVID-19 are here.
"We’re seeing an increasing amount of variant within the wastewater virus," Persse said. "What that means for us as a community is that we're in a little bit of a race. It is more easily spread. There is some discussion that it may make people sicker.
"Right now there's lots and lots of effort to get vaccine moved into people's arms as quickly as possible. Right now our rate-limiting step is the supply of vaccine," Persse said.
"In the meantime we can continue to do those things — wear masks, social distance — that are highly, highly effective. When we look at what happened from October through January and February as we had that wave I think we all can see how that was, in my opinion, because we dropped our guard beginning with Halloween and we started becoming lax with our behavior and then after the holidays, after New Year's people started focusing on what they should have been doing all along and the numbers started coming down."
"The mask wearing, the social distancing remain our single, most effective intervention because there just isn't enough vaccine yet, Persse said. "There's still a huge portion of the population that is still susceptible to becoming infected. If you listen to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] and Dr. Fauci there may be another wave in April."
The Food and Drug Administration this Sunday approved the Johnson & Johnson one-shot COVID vaccine that Turner said he hoped could make its way to Houston's homeless population. "It's very difficult for them to get back for their second shot," he said. On Tuesday, Houston is expected to receive 6,000 doses of that vaccine as well as another 9,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine.
Getting the homeless to return for a second shot as required by the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines can be difficult, he said. While the Johnson & Johnson version is going straight to the Federal Emergency Management Agency center at NRG Stadium, Steve Williams, director for the Houston Health Department, "Hopefully by next week the other sites are going to have access to J&J."
Williams also announced that the city is expanding its wait list in the 1A (first responders and health care workers) and 1B categories (those 18 and older with underlying health conditions) and that whomever is on the wait list will be kept fully informed about which shot is available and what it can do.
Williams said the city is still maintaining its admittedly labor intensive main call center (832-393-4220) as well as the Area Agency on Aging (832-393-4301) and the Aging and Disability Resource Center (832-393-5500) for appointments and questions. "The reason is really simple. Not everybody is technology competent and actually needs assistance."
Some critics have raised the question of whether it will be the more affluent and white population that gets the two dose Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, said to be 95 percent effective against COVID while poorer people and people of color will be directed to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine with a 75 percent effectiveness rating.
The best vaccine you can get is the one you can get," Persse said. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is highly effective but it's being compared to the Pfizer and Moderna which are just way more effective than people had ever anticipated — in the 90 percent range — just way higher than anyone had ever expected.
"Now we're looking at the Johnson & Johnson which is in the 75 percent range of effectiveness. That is a very, very effective vaccine. Let's not get our standards messed up just because Pfizer and Moderna happened to be so powerful. The JJ vaccine is an excellent vaccine and if you can get it you should."