Harris County Does Not Need to Become the Epicenter of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Texas

Methodist Hospital in Sugar Land, one of the many hospitals whose personnel are on the front lines of the coronavirus.
Methodist Hospital in Sugar Land, one of the many hospitals whose personnel are on the front lines of the coronavirus. Photo by Gary Beaver
After days of being reassured that Houston and Harris County's problems with the coronavirus were nowhere near those of New York City, Chicago or New Orleans, it was somewhat confusing Wednesday to hear that Harris County is now considered a hot spot and one of special concern extending even to the office of the vice president of the United States.

This all is occurring while at the same time models projecting the effects of the virus are being revised downward about the number of deaths and possible length of time before it reaches its peak for America and Houston.

In late afternoon, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo reported seven more deaths in one day the unincorporated areas of the county, bringing the combined city-county COVID-19 death total to 31. While she referenced the same Kinder Institute at Rice report that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner had the day before — which estimated thousands of lives saved  by the stay at home measures here already undertaken — she said now was not the time to be complacent. And now is not the time to stop her stay-at-home order.

Earlier in the day she announced that she was ordering the closure of all county parks for the Easter weekend, fearing the usual crowds it draws. The order take effect at 8 p.m. Thursday and ends Monday morning at 8 o'clock. To date, the City of Houston will not be following her example.

Hidalgo said that she had talked with Gov. Abbott earlier in the day, saying "I share his concern about Harris County becoming the epicenter of this crisis in Texas." Abbott in his own press conference had said that Vice President Mike Pence had asked him specifically about Harris County and urged him to make sure it had all the equipment it needed to deal with the pandemic.

Commissioners Court Tuesday approved up to $60 million for a medical shelter in NRG Park to serve as a last resort for patients if the local hospitals are overrun with patients. The facility will provide 250 beds and necessary staff and is designed to operate for two months.

The Harris County Sheriff's Office said Wednesday that the number of its employees with confirmed COVID-19 cases has reached 32. Twenty-four jail staffers have tested positive for the coronavirus including three medical workers.

Four inmates in the Harris County Jail have tested positive as of Wednesday with another 58 inmates in quarantine because they are experiencing virus symptoms and awaiting test results.

The Sheriff's department says eight patrol deputies have tested positive for the virus, including Sgt. Raymond Scholwinski, who is hospitalized in critical condition.

In regards to the jail, the ACLU, 16 Harris County Misdemeanor Magistrate Judges and Harris County Sheriff  Ed Gonzalez all filed suit in Travis County Court challenging Abbott's order prohibiting the release of any Harris County jail inmates which countermanded a plan by Hidalgo to release non-violent offenders after a review board vetted them. Hidalgo made her order hoping to decrease the jail population and the further spread of COVID-19 there.

Elsewhere in his press conference Wednesday,  despite widspread complaints from residents that they cannot get tested and from local officials that the results they're getting from the tests are not delivered in a timely manner, Abbott insisted that Texas is doing fine by its testing, adding that testing is not a solution to the coronavirus problem. Areas that had a much higher per capita amount of testing, he said, also had a much higher number of deaths, thus inspiring the increased testing.

Walgreens is about to begin drive-thru testing which, Abbott said, will not only add to the public and private testing already being done in the state but will also give results within 15 minutes.

If that happens, it will be far faster than the returns on public test results. When Houston soared by an additional 402 cases in one day, Mayor Turner stressed that these were the results of several days of testing — results that were only now getting to the city.

Abbott announced that the Texas Military Department and Prestige Ameritech will be increasing the production of face masks designed for health care workers. Members of the Texas National Guard 36th Infantry Division will help staff the operation with a goal of producing 2 million masks a week in the plant near Fort Worth. 
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing