On Day Two of the city's stay at home order, Houston's Health Department today recorded the first death in the city due to the coronavirus: a woman in her 60s who had underlying health conditions and who died at an area hosptial
Speaking at the mayor's afternoon press conference, Dr. David Persse, local health authority for the Houston Health Department said the cause of death was determined at the medical examiner's office during an autopsy. He said it was a travel-related case; she contracted the virus elsewhere and then returned to Houston.
This becomes the second death reported in the greater Houston area — Harris County officials confirmed on March 19 that a man in his 80s and a resident of a nursing home had died.
The information was delivered at the end of the press conference which began with the announcement that businessman Farouk Shami was making an initial donation of 15,000 bottles of hand sanitizer toward a total of 74,000 bottles to Houston and another 15,000 bottles to Tomball — said to be a $1 million value in all— to help distribute to first responders, health care workers and the homeless.
The availability of supplies continues to be a key concern for local officials. At an earlier press conference Thursday, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she had issued a waiver order that will allow Houston Community College to use it 3D printers, laser cutters and Machining equipment to face masks AKA personal protection equipment for M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Memorial Hermann Health System, and Baylor College of Medicine. HCC will be parnering with TX/RX Labs to accelerate the production of face shields.
Mayor Sylvester Turner has a sadder story to tell. FEMA supplies are not arriving swiftly enough or in enough quantity to meet their expected future needs. The city has only been able to open one of its two testing sites and according to Turner and Persse, unless they get another federal shipment, they'll have to suspend operations after Saturday.
Turner has resorted to the private market and thought the city had a deal to purchase masks at $4 each (already much higher than the normal cost) when his purchasing department told him the private company had received a higher bid and was backing out of its agreement with the city. Now the city is negotiating an agreement with another supplier for masks at $5.56 each, the mayor said.
"We just can't rely on the shipment we're getting from FEMA. The City of Houston like others is going to the private market place. And I will tell you, it becomes a bidding war," Turner said. And the companies they are dealing with want to be paid in full up front, he added.
Turner said he will be asking City Council to approve taking $5 million from the city's economic stabilization fund in order to purchase the supplies they anticipate needing as the number of COVID-19 cases increases and to close the deal on two hotels for city employees and homeless people who test positive for the coronavirus, need to be quarantined and have no place else to go.
Right now the area is not maxed out of ventilators nor are area hospitals at maximum cappacity, Turner said attributing that to strategic planning by hospital leaders. He again urged people to stay home and for businesses to comply with the stay home regulations as well.
Asked if he planned to extend the stay home order past its April 3 expiration date, Turner said "Let's take it one day at a time. "
In the county press conference, Hidalgo announced that United Way of Greater Houston and Greater Houston Community Foundation have combined forces to launch the Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund to help those in critical need.
Money raised, she said, would not go directly to individuals needing help in the areas of food, health care, shelter, utility assistance, transportation and other unmet basic needs, but would be distributed through different reputable organizations experienced in this kind of assistance work.
"Initial contributions to the fund include a lead gift of $1 million from Houston Endowment and additional gifts from JP Morgan Chase, Houston Texans Foundation and Wells Fargo Foundation," according to a press release distributed Thursday.
Meanwhile what to do with all the people incarcerated in the Harris County Jail remains a political land mind. Hidalgo said her office is working on a plan on how some non-violent offenders might be released, but she has not signed any order to do so.
She said she has been told by medical experts that leaving all 8,000-plus prisoners in the jail will probably just lead to the rampant spread of the virus.
"It's very dangerous to have all those people in jail right now," she said. "In many ways we have a ticking time bomb in the heart of our downtown."
Responding to questions, Dr. Umair Shah, executive director at Harris County Public Health, readily agreed there have been long wait times both on the phone and in person for people wanting to be tested for the virus at either of the two testing sites the county has up and running.
Persse also acknowledged the frustration at the city's operation as well. "We fully recognize the frustration. That's why we're trying to get testing sites up as much as possible."
He also said there's some confusion out there about what the testing will do. "Being tested is not like a vaccination. I constantly hear people saying 'I need to get tested so I won't catch the virus.' Those are two different things. That confusion is adding to panic to people who want to get tested because they think it will protect them from the virus.
"What will protect you from your virus is social distancing, washing your hands, coughing into a tissue. All of those things."
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.