Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner revealed Wednesday that the City of Houston had hit a tragic new milestone: the first new daily COVID-19 death count in the double digits.
In an afternoon press conference, Turner announced that the Houston Health Department added 16 deaths from the coronavirus to the city’s official tally, increasing the total number of COVID-19 fatalities within Houston to 295. The Houston Health Department reported 703 new cases Wednesday, which puts Houston’s total case count at 32,693.
“This is the first time since we’ve been dealing with this pandemic that we have announced double digits in terms of people who have died,” Turner said, a seven death increase from the previous single-day record of nine new reported deaths.
The Harris County Health Department reported an additional 640 new COVID-19 cases and 2 fatalities on Wednesday, all outside of Houston, which puts the combined COVID-19 case and death totals for Harris County plus the City of Houston at 50,370 cases and 491 deaths cumulatively.
Turner also announced that two new city-sponsored free testing sites would be open Thursday at Fallbrook Church at 12512 Walters Road and at Higher Dimension Church at 9800 Club Creek Drive. He explained that as with the city’s other free testing sites at Delmar Stadium and Butler Stadium, Houstonians hoping to receive a free test must first call the City’s COVID-19 testing hotline at 1-833-697-4839 to schedule an appointment.
Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department once again stressed the importance of wearing face masks, social distancing and practicing proper hygiene in order to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19 within the Houston area.
Persse provided an example recently cited by the Centers for Disease Control as to the efficacy of face masks in limiting the transmission of the coronavirus about two hairstylists who unknowingly had COVID-19 while they worked with 139 customers for at least 15 minutes each. All of the customers and both hairstylists were wearing face masks at the time, and none of the customers ended up testing positive for COVID-19, Persse said.
“I don’t want anyone to think that means you don’t need to be six feet apart,” Persse said, but he explained that the story shared by the CDC was yet another point of data showing that wearing masks is “highly effective” in limiting COVID-19’s spread.
Persse was asked about reports that some Houstonians tested for COVID-19 at the city’s free testing sites at Delmar Stadium and Butler Stadium have reported waits of 10 to 14 days before receiving results. He said he was aware of those long wait times, but that due to the fact that those testing sites are supported by the federal government and therefore send their samples to be analyzed at out of state testing sites that also handle tests from across the country, the reality of the high volume of tests being taken throughout America meant there was little hope for speeding up result deliveries any time soon.
“There’s nothing that we’re doing, because it’s out of our control,” Persse said.
Moments later, Persse explained that he believes these week-plus lags in receiving test results have been a contributing factor to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Houston in recent weeks, since people who haven’t received their results may not realize they’re carrying the virus and may be more likely to continue making contact with other people while unknowingly having COVID-19.
Persse also praised local hospitals for constantly improving the standard of care for COVID-19 patients as they’ve learned more about how to treat the disease in recent weeks. “They’re keeping the death rate low. It’s our job to keep the infection rate low,” Persse said.
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U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee spoke during the press conference in support of Turner’s “steadfast leadership” through the pandemic, and commented on her confidence in the Houston Independent School District reopening plan revealed by HISD Superintendent Grenita Lathan earlier on Wednesday.
Turner also commended Lathan for HISD’s plan to delay the start of the school year until early September and to hold the first six weeks of classes virtually for all students.
In response to a question about whether or not he planned to instruct the City’s health department to shut down in-person classes in school districts still planning to go forward with having students in the classroom come August, Turner said that he was eagerly awaiting new guidance extending the amount of time Texas public schools can stay online-only and still receive state funding, which Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath have said could come any day now.
“This issue may become moot as of tomorrow,” Turner said.