“I want the reopening to be successful. I want the economy to be resilient. But I’m growing increasingly concerned that we may be reaching the precipice of a disaster,” warned Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo during a Thursday afternoon press conference.
Moments later, she revealed a new threat level system to highlight the current severity of the coronavirus pandemic in Harris County. This move came after Hidalgo’s previous stay-at-home order expired at 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, June 10, and amid a statistically significant increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations in Harris County in recent days.
“This week, the COVID-19 general hospital population in Harris County is the highest it has ever been,” Hidalgo said. “It was the highest on Monday, and it’s gotten worse every day.”
Called “The Harris County COVID-19 Threat Level,” the new system has four color-coded tiers based on the degree that COVID-19 is spreading within Harris County. Level 1 equals “severe” spread, followed by “significant” spread at Level 2, “moderate” spread at Level 3, and “minimal” spread at Level 4.
Hidalgo explained during Thursday’s conference that Harris County is currently at Level 2 of this new scale, based on the ongoing “significant community transmission” of COVID-19 along with county public health and hospital capacity that is “likely sufficient” to handle the number of new cases cropping up.
Each of the system’s levels comes with recommendations from the county government about what level of social distancing to maintain—Level 2 calls for residents to “minimize contact with others, avoiding any medium or large gatherings and only visiting permissible businesses that follow public health guidance,” according to the ReadyHarris.org website. In her remarks, Hidalgo recommended that Harris County residents continue to avoid bars and clubs where it would be difficult to practice social distancing.
In order for the threat to fall to Level 3 under this scale, measures like a 14-day flat or decreasing rate of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations would have to be met, as well as certain ICU capacity rates.
An escalation to Level 1 could happen if hospitalizations were to increase over a seven-day period in Harris County, if there are over 100 new daily COVID-19 cases over seven days, or if the county’s PPE stockpile couldn’t last past 30 days. That jump to Level 1 would come with a new recommendation for county residents to remain home. But it would only be a recommendation.
Despite her concern about the steady increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations in Harris County since Memorial Day, Hidalgo and other local government officials in Texas now have less authority to respond to the crisis with sweeping public health measures and mandatory stay-at-home orders, thanks to Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide reopening orders which have overridden local authorities since they went into effect on May 1.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, also in attendance at Thursday’s press conference, used part of his time at the podium to issue a thinly-veiled swipe at Abbott for his decision to overrule local leaders.
“In March and April, the county judge and I had the ability to hit the brakes,” Turner said, contrasting the lower hospitalization rate and overall coronavirus case counts in those months compared to their increasingly high levels in recent weeks. “The state has preempted the local government from hitting the brakes.”
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Hidalgo hopes that the COVID-19 crisis in Harris County won’t escalate to a point where local hospitals are overrun, but she said that will only be possible if county residents heed public health warnings, continue to social distance, wear face coverings in public, and stay vigilant in the days and weeks ahead.
“It is not time to go back to life as usual,” Hidalgo said.
The full text of the Harris County Threat Level guidance is embedded below.