Coronavirus

Abbott Announces He Has COVID Hours After Hidalgo Offers $100 Vaccine Incentive

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo hopes offering up a few thousand Benjamins will spur folks to get vaccinated.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo hopes offering up a few thousand Benjamins will spur folks to get vaccinated. Screenshot
Will Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo's offer of a $100 bonus be enough to persuade more of the area's unvaccinated to get inoculated against COVID-19?

And will Tuesday's announcement from Gov. Greg Abbott's office that the governor has tested positive for COVID-19 change any more minds about the need for even the vaccinated (as Abbott is) to wear masks to avoid breakthrough infections while contacting any number of other people indoors?

As the Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to send Houston area hospitalizations blasting upward and has left local hospitals fuller than they’ve been at any point in the pandemic, area leaders on Tuesday urged the unvaccinated to hurry up and get one of the shots before things get even worse.

Abbott, who has made national headlines for his executive orders forbidding any public school or local governmental body from requiring masks, is said to be self-isolating at home, while still doing his job as governor in what is said to be a mild case. Several court cases have been filed in the back and forth between Abbott and local county and public school leaders who support masks in schools — particularly since the number of hospitalizations of children with COVID has surged. 

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo sweetened the deal for getting a coronavirus vaccine in Harris County Tuesday, announcing that anyone who gets their first shot of any COVID-19 vaccine at any Harris County Public Health vaccination site from now through the end of August will receive $100 — including kids 12 and up who are eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine — in the form of pre-loaded debit cards.

"Just today, we learned that there are more coronavirus patients hospitalized in the greater Houston region than at any previous points in the pandemic. Our public hospitals are strained to their breaking point," Hidalgo said, arguing for the need to give more incentives to convince people to get vaccinated.

click to enlarge Harris County COVID-19 hospitalizations have risen daily for over a month and continue to climb. - SCREENSHOT
Harris County COVID-19 hospitalizations have risen daily for over a month and continue to climb.
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Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner didn’t offer any new incentives for vaccinations in remarks of his own later that afternoon. He stuck with his main strategy of begging city residents to do the right thing on behalf of themselves, their neighbors and their loved ones, and touted the third straight Saturday vaccination drive at area school campuses on August 21. Houston’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Persse painted a bleak picture of the local test positivity rate (which has nearly eclipsed its highest point in the pre-vaccine summer of 2020) and local hospitalizations that show no sign of slowing down soon.
click to enlarge Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner stressed we shouldn't be in this dire hospital situation given the availability of vaccines. - SCREENSHOT
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner stressed we shouldn't be in this dire hospital situation given the availability of vaccines.
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Just hours after Hidalgo and Turner made their pleas, Texans received the news that Abbott himself has now tested positive for COVID-19. Abbott is fully vaccinated and will likely only suffer mild symptoms thanks to the vaccines’ efficacy in preventing hospitalizations and death. But his case is yet another reminder of both the potency of the Delta variant (which is over twice as transmissible as earlier forms of the disease), the possibility for breakthrough infections among the vaccinated and the important role face masks can play in preventing the spread of the virus, especially given that Abbott was seen hobnobbing at a large indoor gathering of maskless Collin County GOP boosters Monday night.

Abbott’s communications director Mark Miner said in a statement that Abbott has been tested daily for COVID-19 for an undetermined period of time, “and today was the first positive test result.” Miner said Abbott will be isolating in the Governor’s mansion and is receiving Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody treatment.

“Governor Abbott is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, in good health, and currently experiencing no symptoms,” Miner wrote. “Everyone that the Governor has been in close contact with today has been notified,” he continued, before sharing that Texas’ First Lady Cecilia Abbott has tested negative for the virus.

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement Tuesday that “I wish Governor Abbott well, and send him best wishes for a smooth and speedy recovery after his positive COVID-19 test.”

“COVID is not a partisan issue,” Hinojosa continued. “This is stark reminder that no one is immune to this surge, especially as the Delta variant continues to spread rapidly among our communities.”

Since rescinding his own statewide mask mandate in March, Abbott has constantly stressed that further government mandates for public health measures like mask-wearing and COVID-19 vaccines are infringements on the freedoms of Texans. Through executive orders and legal challenges he has continued to fight to stymie the efforts of local government officials who want to implement stricter public health measures.

The ongoing legal battles between Abbott and his right-hand litigator Attorney General Ken Paxton and Texas counties who have attempted to buck Abbott’s orders and issue mask mandates of their own come as the school year begins for many Texas school children, many of whom are under 12 and therefore ineligible to get vaccinated. Multiple small, rural school districts in West Texas have even had to temporarily shut down campuses just days into the new school year due to how many teachers and students had caught COVID.

Hidalgo reminded Harris County residents that her recently issued mask mandate for public school children and staff is still in effect given that the local court order blocking Abbott’s ban on such orders has yet to be overturned. “The public health order requiring masks in schools is still very much in effect,” Hidalgo said, “and every day that order is in effect we are protecting children.” Prior to Hidalgo’s order issued Friday, Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II issued a mask mandate for district students and staff earlier last week, which the full HISD board formally approved in a vote Thursday.

Abbott has lobbied the Texas Supreme Court to add Harris County to the list of counties whose mask orders the state’s highest court has temporarily blocked in recent days, but as of Tuesday afternoon, Harris County’s order still stands.

When Hidalgo announced Harris County’s new eye-catching $100 incentive to nudge unvaccinated county residents toward getting one of the potentially life-saving COVID-19 vaccines available in the county, she explained the cash was coming from a pool of approximately $2.3 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan.

She pointed out that in a test-run of giving out $100 payments to those getting their first vaccine shot over the weekend, a site that usually sees “about 40 people” stop by “saw over 240 folks come to that event.”

“Let’s do our part,” Hidalgo said. “There’s no excuse. We have the power to put this crisis to rest within two to four week if each person who does not have the vaccine steps up right now. We need to close the gap in the vaccinated in Harris County.”

“There’s no excuse. We have the power to put this crisis to rest within two to four week if each person who does not have the vaccine steps up right now. We need to close the gap in the vaccinated in Harris County.” - Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo

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“Over 65 percent of the eligible population [in Harris County] has at least one shot,” Hidalgo continued. “What are you waiting for?”

She acknowledged that some county residents who got vaccinated before now might grumble that it isn’t fair that those who have waited so long and ignored all the evidence of the vaccines’ safety are the ones being rewarded. “If it weren’t for you, things would be worse right now,” she said, and asked that the vaccinated continue to urge their unvaccinated loved ones and friends to get a shot as soon as possible.

“Look, I understand. But not being hospitalized, not dying, I think is worth more than the $100,” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo was joined by Harris Health President and CEO Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, who explained how Harris County’s overrun hospitals don’t just pose a problem for those mostly unvaccinated individuals who fall victim to COVID-19, but anyone else in a health crisis who may have to wait for hours on end to receive the care they need due to a lack of available hospital beds.

“Yesterday morning when I arrived to work,” Borsa said, “we had a patient with acute pancreatitis. Not a COVID patient, but a patient on several medications through intravenous drip under ICU status admission, who had been in my emergency room for 40 hours. Waiting for a hospital bed for 40 hours.”

click to enlarge Houston's COVID-19 test positivity rate could surpass its highest pre-vaccine peak if current trends continue. - SCREENSHOT
Houston's COVID-19 test positivity rate could surpass its highest pre-vaccine peak if current trends continue.
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During Turner’s press conference, Persse warned that the local test positivity rate “is now at 19.2 percent,” and that at this rate it will soon eclipse the previous local high in COVID-19 test positivity from back in July 2020, when there were no coronavirus vaccines available.

Across Harris County and its eight closest neighboring counties, Persse said that 35.8 percent of all ICU patients are COVID patients, and that those sick with the coronavirus make up 24.28 percent of all hospitalizations across that nine-county region. “Never before in history that I know of [have we ever] had one disease occupying a quarter of all hospital beds in a huge metropolitan area like this,” Persse said.

Houston City Councilmember Abbie Kamin noted one way this surge is different from others is the startlingly high number of children who’ve been hospitalized with COVID-19. We have seen more pediatric infections across the board,” Kamin said, “but also in terms of capacity in our children’s hospital.”

“During the past surges, we were able to actually use extra beds, in, for example, Texas Children’s for adults. This time, we cannot. Our hospitals are at capacity, and our children are being infected with school starting now,” she explained.

“It is imperative to set aside personal desires, and what I would call actually selfish behavior, to protect the children who are dying, who are being infected,” Kamin continued.

Turner highlighted that “in June and July [of 2020] when those numbers were bad, we did not have three vaccines. In August, we have three vaccines, so you would think the situation ought to be much, much better.”

“We have three vaccines. Please take full advantage of them,” Turner pleaded.
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Schaefer Edwards is a staff writer at the Houston Press who covers local and regional news. A lifelong Texan and adopted Houstonian, he loves NBA basketball and devouring Tex-Mex while his cat watches in envy.
Contact: Schaefer Edwards