With the school year fast approaching, recently minted Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II released a video message this weekend in an attempt to reassure district parents and students that even with HISD’s continued plans for 100 percent in-person classes starting August 23 that the school district is still on full alert about COVID-19 issues.
His video came after there were news reports — KTRK (Channel 13) and KHOU (Channel 11) — saying HISD was reducing its coronavirus health emergency strategies despite a recent and significant uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases in the area and the state. Gov. Greg Abbott had already placed a ban on classroom mask mandates in a May executive order.
“I wanted to make sure that our community understands and knows that we are working closely with the Harris County Health Department, as well as working in accordance with the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics to monitor the COVID-19 issues that are going on throughout our community,” House said.
“We’ve seen a rise in the wrong direction most recently,” House continued, “and it’s important for our community to understand that we take very seriously the health and safety of our students, staff and community members to ensure that we have a strong and healthy start to our school year.”
House directly addressed the reports (without naming the media outlets involved) which said that the district’s internal team tasked with making coronavirus-minded policy decisions had been done away with, which he said was not true.
“We have not disbanded our communicable disease team,” House said, and insisted that “We are continuing to work closely with those individuals that understand and make certain that the safety of our community is A-1.”
In early July, House publicly reiterated his confidence that “a full return to in-person learning” in the fall would be “completely safe for our staff, students and teachers.” But the local pandemic has dramatically worsened in the weeks that followed, as lagging vaccination rates combined with more folks going maskless and the much more highly transmissible Delta variant’s arrival have led to troubling increases in local COVID-19 hospitalizations, Harris County’s test positivity rate and new daily case counts.
On Sunday afternoon, the Department of State Health Services reported that 4,626 Texans were sick with COVID-19 in state hospital beds. Texas passed the threshold of having over 4,000 hospital beds occupied by coronavirus patients on Friday, the first time since March 14 that statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations exceeded 4,000. Statewide coronavirus hospitalizations only totaled 1,503 as recently as June 20.
Luckily, there hasn’t been a dramatic uptick in the number of deaths due to COVID-19 thanks to the vast majority of elderly Texans having received their vaccinations. Still, the steadily rising number of coronavirus hospitalizations — the vast majority of which are unvaccinated residents — has local officials and public health experts worried.
Last week, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced the county had raised its COVID-19 threat alert level for unvaccinated residents from yellow to orange, recommending that residents who have yet to (or refuse to) get vaccinated refrain from gathering in public in large or medium groups, to keep wearing face masks and to stick to hanging out with only household members as much possible.
Both Hidalgo and local coronavirus and vaccine expert Dr. Peter Hotez of Baylor College of Medicine said they believe more caution among even the vaccinated is warranted given Delta’s rapid spread. Hidalgo and Hotez both said that even though they’re fully vaccinated, they’ll be wearing masks in public again and recommended that other vaccinated residents do the same, despite the CDC’s current stance that fully vaccinated folks can still safely ditch their face masks in most settings (a guidance that’s been unaltered by the CDC since May).
The nationwide Delta surge has spurred the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to urge vaccine-makers Pfizer and Moderna to expand their studies into their vaccines’ safety and effectiveness in five to 11 year-olds, according to the New York Times, with the hope that doing so will mean vaccines for young children could be authorized for use more quickly.
The uptick in COVID-19 cases nationwide has also led a group of 50-plus medical organizations to author a joint statement urging mandatory vaccinations for health care workers. The letter, signed by groups including the American Nurses Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the Texas Nurses Association calls for “all health care and long-term care employers to require their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.”
“Vaccination is the primary way to put the pandemic behind us and avoid the return of stringent public health measures,” the letter read. The coalition of medical groups is calling for mandatory vaccines among health workers because “Unfortunately, many health care and long-term care personnel remain unvaccinated.”
“This is the logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment of all health care workers to put patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities first and take all steps necessary to ensure their health and well-being,” the letter read.
The joint letter follows the lead of Houston Methodist Hospital, the first hospital chain in the nation to require its workforce to be vaccinated against COVID-19 earlier this year in order to keep their jobs. While a tiny fraction of the hospital’s employees refused to comply with the hospital’s vaccine mandate, including 117 who have sued Houston Methodist over the requirement, the overwhelming majority of the hospital’s 26,000 workers got their shots in time to avoid being fired.
Since Houston Methodist made headlines for its mandatory vaccination policy earlier this year, multiple other hospital systems across the country followed suit. Even one arm of the federal government has gotten on board with making coronavirus vaccines mandatory for health care workers — On Monday afternoon, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that 115,000 of its front-line workers will need to get vaccinated within the next two months. The VA is now the first federal agency to mandate vaccines for a portion of its workforce.