COVID-19 Under "Community Control" in Greater Houston, but Delta Variant and Other Questions Remain

Houston residents lined up for free COVID-19 vaccines and freebie Astros tickets at Minute Maid Park last week.
Houston residents lined up for free COVID-19 vaccines and freebie Astros tickets at Minute Maid Park last week. Photo by Schaefer Edwards
It feels like the COVID-19 pandemic has finally gotten to a somewhat manageable state in the greater Houston area and much of the United States where life-saving coronavirus vaccines are free, widely available and remarkably successful at preventing hospitalizations, sickness and death from the virus that’s been a daily part of our lives for well over 18 months now.

But the emergence of the Delta variant — an increasingly prevalent and easily spreadable mutation of the COVID-19 virus we’ve come to know and loathe — has put those folks who are still unvaccinated at a heightened risk of being laid low by the potentially deadly coronavirus, leading public health watchdog groups to offer more aggressive recommendations around mask-wearing in parts of the globe that don’t have nearly as plentiful a supply of coronavirus vaccines as the United States.

Although the Houston area is doing pretty well on the vaccination front, this easier to catch version of the virus floating around while there's still a sizable, stubborn portion of the population that refuses to believe the plentiful data about how effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines are could combine to cause lots of unnecessary suffering for those who still won't get inoculated, many of them Texan conservatives.

Jill Weatherhead, a local coronavirus expert and an assistant professor of infectious diseases and tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said Houston area residents have plenty of reasons to feel good about the status of the pandemic in our part of the world.

“Since the rollout of the vaccines, our cases and hospitalizations have decreased,” Weatherhead said, “and they’ve gone down to levels at which people have been more comfortable doing some of their pre-COVID activities.”

According to the Texas Medical Center, the greater Houston area is in a pretty good state concerning how quickly the virus is spreading locally. COVID-19’s reproduction rate was 0.79 for the week of June 21 and has been below 1 for multiple weeks, an important development considering that a rate greater than 1 means the spread of the virus is increasing in a given region.

The medical center’s COVID-19 test positivity rate has hovered around 2 percent for the past several weeks compared to the 2.9 percent average during the month of May, all great news considering a rate below 5 percent indicates that COVID’s spread is under control.

Based on those metrics as well as the dramatically lower number of new people testing positive each day (just 132 on average each day the week of June 21, compared to 315 a day in May), Weatherhead and Texas Medical Center experts are confident that COVID-19 in greater Houston is under “community control.”

Plainly put, the situation is improving and staying at a comfortable rate instead of worsening.

“The majority of the United States, including the rest of Texas, has gradually been seeing decreased numbers, decreased deaths, decreased hospitalizations, and that is really good news overall,” Weatherhead said.

“But the issue is,” she warned, “we’re kind of at a transition point currently where we’re seeing increased prevalence of this new variant, the Delta variant, which could shift the pandemic again.”

"We’re kind of at a transition point currently where we’re seeing increased prevalence of this new variant, the Delta variant, which could shift the pandemic again.” — Jill Weatherhead, Baylor College of Medicine

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The Delta variant, which is spreading rapidly throughout the world and has already been detected in Texas and in Houston, is poised to become “the most dominant variant in the United States,” Weatherhead said, citing research that’s shown Delta “is more transmissible, potentially 40 to 60 percent [more so].”

Weatherhead said experts are concerned the Delta variant could cause more severe illness and hospitalizations than other variants of COVID, and that some treatments for those sick with the coronavirus appear not to work quite as well against Delta. Luckily, the available coronavirus vaccines seem to be effective at fighting off the Delta variant, although there’s still the extremely low possibility for “breakthrough infections” where fully-vaccinated folks still come down with the disease and could still spread it to others, albeit with far less severe symptoms and virtually no risk of death.

“If you receive your full vaccine series,” Weatherhead said, meaning two shots of either Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccine or one shot of Johnson & Johnson’s, “it provides significant protection against the Delta variants.”

“Does it cause more hospitalizations? Does it cause more deaths? That’s still being evaluated, but it certainly causes more transmissibility,” Weatherhead said of the Delta variant. “[But] if you are vaccinated, you’re still protected against that barrier. And that’s why it’s so critical for people who are unvaccinated to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

U.S. residents have been going maskless in public more often ever since the CDC issued new guidance back in May that people who've been fully vaccinated can safely ditch their masks, both outdoors and indoors.

But many folks who are trying to abide by the scientific consensus on mask-wearing were a bit concerned when the World Health Organization recently reiterated its stance that everyone should keep wearing masks to help slow the spread of the Delta variant, including people who have been fully vaccinated.

The CDC has shown no signs of reversing its own recommendations on masking, and was still telling vaccinated Americans they could safely go mask-free over the Fourth of July holiday as of last week.

Those two sets of mask recommendations seem pretty contradictory at first glance, and confusing for everyone who has sworn to “trust the science” when deciding what type of COVID prevention tactics they’ll be using. But Weatherhead explained that when you think about the different audiences the CDC and the WHO are each targeting, the different recommendations make a lot more sense.

“Because [the WHO is] looking at a global perspective, where the majority of the world still doesn’t have vaccine access, there’s still a high risk of huge outbreaks in certain regions of the world,” Weatherhead explained. “And the more people who are masked in those regions — including those who are vaccinated because there’s a risk of breakthrough [infections] — the safer those communities are going to be.”

Countries like India have been ravaged by the Delta variant and have nowhere near as much access to vaccines as the United States, so Weatherhead said it makes sense the WHO would want people in those areas to be extra cautious when it comes to mask-wearing, even among the vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the United States has a plentiful supply of highly-effective vaccines and an increasingly large percentage of the country has chosen to get vaccinated to protect themselves and limit the virus’ spread, hence the CDC’s more loose guidelines.

COVID-19 vaccines are currently available in the United States for those 12-years-old and up. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, about 54.9 percent of Americans 12 and older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, compared to 49.6 percent of that age group in Texas as a whole.

Harris County and Fort Bend County’s vaccination rates are both outpacing the statewide rate; Of all Harris County residents 12 and up, 51.1 percent have been fully vaccinated. Fort Bend County’s rate for that same age group is ahead of both Texas and the country as a whole, with 63 percent of folks 12 and older having been fully vaccinated.

Harris County Public Health announced Friday that 14 people in unincorporated Harris County were found to have caught the Delta variant, all of whom were infected with the mutated strain between April and June. Nine of the infected county residents are men and five are women. All 14 of them were unvaccinated.

Still, big pockets of vaccine hesitancy remain across the county, especially in Southern, conservative states like Texas. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed that a troubling 29 percent of Texan adults say they have no plans to ever take a COVID-19 vaccine, despite all the evidence that the shots are life-saving marvels of modern science.

There's clearly a political element at play when it comes to vaccine hesitancy in Texas: Quinnipiac found that a whopping 45 percent of Texan Republicans say they're not interested in any coronavirus vaccine, compared to 28 percent of independents and 13 percent of Democrats who say they won't get the shots.

Its unclear at this point what it will take to convince those who are still hesitating to finally get vaccinated. Harris County has offered a limited number of $5,000 scholarships for teens who choose to take a vaccine, but there's been no talk in Texas of having the kinds of million-plus dollar lottery payouts for adults who opt to get vaccinated that states including Colorado, Maryland, Ohio, California, New York and West Virginia have used to urge the unvaccinated to change course.

Fort Bend County is trying to boost its already impressive, state-leading vaccination numbers by offering free tickets to Sugar Land Skeeters minor league baseball games to residents who get vaccinated at four of its county-run vaccination sites.

The Houston Astros recently hosted a massive vaccination drive at Minute Maid Park where those who got inoculated received free tickets to games and replica World Series rings. That event was headlined by appearances from First Lady Jill Biden and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, whose inclusion in the event hopefully enticed more people to show up.

Weatherhead, who has been vaccinated for many months now, said she’s still erring on the side of caution in terms of mask-wearing despite the CDC’s guidelines. “I still wear a mask in indoor public spaces — things like grocery shopping, anything indoors.”

”The main reason I do that,” she explained, “is because I’m usually with my kids, who are less than 12 and not eligible for vaccination. And I also have a family member who’s immunosuppressed, and so it’s important for me to make sure that I don’t get infected, or I don’t transmit the virus to either my children or my family members, but also to set an example for my kids, who should still continue to wear masks.”

That said, the increased level of vaccinations across the country and the drastic decline in the prevalence of COVID-19 both locally and nationally have made Weatherhead and her family comfortable enough to take part in some family events they wouldn’t have felt safe enough to participate in just a few months ago.

“We got to see grandparents. We’ve been to a wedding, so pretty much all our activities are back to normal,” Weatherhead said. “We just wear a mask when we’re indoors around company that we don’t know if they’ve been vaccinated or not.”
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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