As COVID-19 Surges, Local Leaders Warn Against New Year’s Superspreader Shindigs

A Houston Health Department worker readied a dose of the scarce COVID-19 vaccine for one of her frontline coworkers on Monday.
Even though 2020 is almost in the rearview once and for all, the coronavirus will still be the biggest threat to the lives and livelihoods of Houstonians once the clock ticks over from midnight to January 1, 2021.

Texas and Houston aren’t anywhere close to being out of the woods regarding the still raging pandemic. Houston’s local COVID-19 test positivity rate is still climbing — up to 11.6 percent as of Monday — and the statewide positivity rate hit a staggering 18.7 percent on Wednesday, the highest it’s been since July. On Wednesday, 19 percent of Harris County’s hospital beds were full of coronavirus patients, which is down from a December high of 22.9 percent on Christmas Day but still well above the 15 percent threshold the Department of State Health Services said signals dangerous territory.

The Houston Health Department on Wednesday reported 895 new cases of COVID-19 within the city and four additional deaths, putting the city’s cumulative case total at 117,422 and Houston’s coronavirus death tally at 1,551. Across all of Harris County, as of Wednesday 203,002 residents had reported testing positive for COVID-19, and 2,633 residents had been killed by the disease.

Due to the surging coronavirus, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday repeated his now familiar pleas for Houstonians to resist the urge to gather together for celebrations ahead of the New Year, just like he did before Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“As we approach New Year’s Eve, again let me remind people… to cancel all of the New Year’s Eve celebrations that require large gatherings, and that’s whether you’re going out or whether or not you’re holding events at your home,” Turner said. “Let’s not gather in large numbers for the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Let’s celebrate differently, but let’s do it safely.”

On Wednesday, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo also stressed the importance of calling off New Year’s shindigs via Twitter. “It’s tempting as 2020 ends to think it’s OK to celebrate with friends and extended family. It’s not OK,” Hidalgo wrote. “ This kind of thinking is why December has been the deadliest month for #COVID19 nationwide so far.”

“Ring in the New Year with your household,” her tweet continued, “and nobody outside your household.”

To drive the point home, Hidalgo’s office blasted out a smartphone emergency alert notification to all Harris County residents on Wednesday, warning them to “Cancel all gatherings” due to how the coronavirus is “surging at a dangerous rate in Harris County.”

The lack of anything resembling a carefully coordinated vaccine distribution plan is making matters worse across Texas and slowing public health officials’ best efforts to slow this winter surge.

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott and DSHS Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt both called out medical providers for not getting vaccine shots into Texans’ arms quickly enough. Neither official is taking any blame, however, for a lack of clarity from the state on vaccine distribution. They certainly didn’t criticize President Donald Trump’s administration for its decision to cede to the states virtually all responsibility for getting vaccines out as fast as possible.

Meanwhile, healthcare orgs across the state have said they’re still working through the state’s top priority groups — frontline healthcare workers as well as staff and residents at nursing homes. And the overwhelming majority of providers still don’t have nearly enough vaccines in stock to start taking appointments from Texans in the next priority group, which is Texans 65 or over and state residents 16 and up who have pre-existing health conditions that put them at higher risk for faring poorly from a coronavirus infection, like cancer, heart disease, COPD, diabetes and obesity.

In a Thursday letter to his constituents, Fort Bend County Judge KP George expressed his frustration that “Due to no centralized sign up system, distribution plan, or notification system developed by those in charge of vaccine rollout, you must work with the public list of providers to obtain a vaccine,” and then directed residents to the DSHS list of state vaccine providers.

“We are ready to go. Unfortunately, like many local governments in similar situations, we have no idea when the State of Texas will ship more or mow many which is why we are prepared for all situations,” George wrote. Fort Bend County also blasted out a phone alert, urging residents to stay home rather than party their way into 2021, exposing themselves perhaps to COVID in the process.