Hidalgo said we find ourselves “in the midst of two pandemics:” the COVID-19 pandemic itself, and “a pandemic of misinformation” about the safety of the free and effective coronavirus vaccines, which she warns “is keeping us from moving beyond this virus.”
Both Hotez and Hidalgo wore masks for the duration of their Thursday press conference, a stark contrast from when Hidalgo gave remarks unmasked alongside County Commissioner Adrian Garcia in a press conference about the local criminal court backlog on Tuesday.
Clearly frustrated about the wave of misinformation fueled mostly by social media platforms like Facebook and right-wing media that’s convinced a large chunk of Texans not to get vaccinated, Hidalgo signaled her frustration in trying to persuade people to trust the ample scientific proof that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and extremely effective.
“There’s not very much else we can do as government,” Hidalgo said. “We need individuals to recognize that they’re moving from a point of hesitancy to a point of enabling this virus, enabling these hospitalizations and enabling these deaths. And so we have got to draw a line there.”
Given that the coronavirus vaccines are effective, free, and so plentiful that any Harris County resident can likely waltz into their nearest drug store and have a shot within minutes without an appointment, Hotez said he’s running out of patience with adults who still refuse to take a vaccine jab.
The Delta variant has caused a surge in hospitalizations both in Harris County and neighboring Fort Bend County, which isn’t surprising given the COVID mutation is “twice as contagious as the original COVID-19 virus,” according to Hotez, and accounts for 83 percent of coronavirus cases in the United States according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Anybody who is hospitalized or is in an ICU from COVID right now is there by choice. Because they didn’t make the effort to get vaccinated, and that’s what we need to fix.” — COVID-19 expert Dr. Peter Hotez
“We are undoubtedly looking at a serious surge across the South this summer,” Hotez said.
Delta isn’t the only variant to pop up in greater Houston: earlier this week, Houston Methodist recorded its first case of the Lambda variant, a COVID mutation first found in Peru last summer. Not as much is known about Lambda as Delta these days, but local public health experts still warn that Delta is the variant most Houston area residents should be most concerned about.
She also implored county residents to be more cautious than the CDC has recommended regarding indoor masking for those who have been fully vaccinated, asking that even they return to wearing masks in public when indoors, a recommendation echoed by Hotez.
The request for even the vaccinated to wear masks again comes from the still uncertain degree to which fully vaccinated people can still spread the virus to other people. Experts have contended for months that some small level of symptom-free transmission from vaccinated folks who get breakthrough COVID infections is possible, and that appears to be even more likely now given how much more transmissible the Delta variant has proven to be.
“Our numbers are increasing so sharply again because of those who have not gotten their vaccine,” Hidalgo said, before sharing her view that “[for] those of us who have gotten our vaccine, taking our mask off right while the situation worsens [means] we’re normalizing not wearing masks for even those who are unvaccinated.”
“And so, as we have such a high spread, we’re asking everybody to wear masks,” Hidalgo said.
“I know they’re uncomfortable. I don’t like wearing masks either. But until we get the numbers back down, let’s all wear masks again,” Hidalgo urged. She acknowledged that urging masking is all she can do, and that she'd "of course" issue a more strict local mask mandate had Gov. Greg Abbott not forbidden local officials from doing so.
Hotez, who said he’s also chosen to start wearing his mask again when indoors in public, explained that since so many older residents of Harris County have gotten on board with the vaccination effort, “the number of deaths will not be [as] high]” during this new surge as the death tolls in surges past.” That means this surge will be felt most by younger county residents who’ve refused to get vaccinated.
He blasted the “anti-vaccine aggression that’s out there” for spreading the false message to young folks “that if you’re young and healthy, if you take care of yourself and go to the gym, don’t worry about getting vaccinated.”
“It’s not true,” Hotez said. “It’s great to take care of yourself and have a proper diet, but its no substitute for virus-neutralizing antibodies.”
“What we’re seeing now are a lot of young adults, adolescents, going into the hospital absolutely shocked that they’re sick from COVID and may have to be intubated, or may require an ICU admission, because that message they’ve gotten is that they won’t get sick from COVID-19,” he said.
“It’s absolutely not true,” Hotez continued, “and that’s why almost all of the people hospitalized right now in the Texas Medical Center are younger people.”
While many younger folks likely won’t have as severe symptoms as older victims of COVID, Hotez warned that data shows “about 26 percent of young adults who get infected are getting ‘long-COVID.’” Even though scientists are still researching what all long-COVID entails, Hotez said some of the known side effects include “shortness of breath, or heart palpitations, or what people call ‘brain fog’ where they’re just not functioning at the level they want to,” in addition to “prolonged headaches or even depression.”
“We’ve done a better job vaccinating older Americans, so the number of deaths will not be high, but unfortunately, we are going to see a lot of young adults, adolescents and even kids get sick,” Hotez said.
“The big thing that worries me is by now, anyone who’s unvaccinated and has been lucky enough to escape COVID, your luck is about to run out,” he continued.