No more Mr. Nice Mayor on masks — Houston Mayor Sylvester announced Monday that he’s instructed the Houston Police Department to start issuing citations and fines of up to $250 to Houstonians who refuse to wear face masks in public to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Back on July 2, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide mandate that requires Texans to wear face masks in all public places. His order outlined that the first penalty for not wearing a mask would just be a warning, but after that offenders could be fined up to $250.
Turner explained during a Monday press conference that HPD had previously been instructed to simply provide verbal warnings and educate Houston residents caught not wearing masks after Abbott made his order. That move was in line with what Turner told HPD to do in April when Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo attempted to issue a mask mandate of her own with a possible $1,000 fine, before local officials were prohibited by Abbott from issuing widespread local mandates.
Under new guidance from Turner, HPD officers will issue warning citations the first time they catch someone not wearing a mask. If that person is caught not wearing a mask a second time, HPD officers will now issue the maximum allowed fine of $250.
“Please don’t get mad at the police officers. It’s all about public health and driving our numbers down,” Turner said.
Turner announced that the Houston Health Department reported 1,104 new COVID-19 cases and an additional six deaths from the coronavirus in Houston on Monday. In total, Houston has now recorded 50,896 COVID-19 cases and 478 deaths. Combining the City of Houston data with the metrics from the rest of Harris County brings the region’s total cumulative case count to 78,105 and the total regional death count to 766 since the start of the pandemic.
Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department shared some promising metrics on the COVID-19 testing positivity rate in Houston that show a substantial decrease in recent weeks. After a peak positivity rate of 25.9 percent was recorded on July 5, Houston’s rate was down to 23.3 percent by July 24 and fell even further to 17.6 percent as of July 31. Turner and Persse both also referenced a continued decrease in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Houston area over the past several weeks as promising news, but urged Houstonians to stay vigilant.
Persse explained that in order to most effectively track coronavirus cases, health experts believe the local positivity rate needs to get down to 5 percent or below. He also asked that Houstonians continue to seek out COVID-19 tests if they’re feeling symptoms or are worried they’ve come in contact with the virus. Persse said that the City’s main free testing sites at Delmar Stadium and Butler Stadium were routinely reaching their capacity of 650 tests a day just a couple weeks ago, the number of tests they’ve given out has been down to “less than half” of that number in recent days, and described his fear that fewer Houstonians were seeking out testings out of a false sense of security from recent good news on the local hospital capacity.
“My fear is that everybody’s seen good news and [are] taking their foot off the brake. That’s my fear, and so we need to not let that happen,” Persse said.
Persse also answered questions about a recent Houston Chronicle report which revealed that the Texas Department of State Health Services isn't including test results from rapid-result COVID-19 antigen tests in their statewide metrics, which are a relatively new testing method that has seen increased use in recent weeks. Persse said that the Houston Health Department doesn't currently report this data based on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, who don't recommend that local health departments include antigen test results in their reports to state health authorities due to those tests having higher false negative rates than the more accurate and more widely used PCR nasal swab tests.
In simpler terms, Persse explained that when one of these rapid-result antigen tests comes back positive, patients can be confident that they do indeed have COVID-19, but that negative test results can’t be trusted as much due to the fact that the antigen test works best when there’s a very high concentration of the coronavirus present in a patient.
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That means people who’ve recently contracted the disease have a better chance of testing negative than they would from a nasal swab test. Part of why more people are seeking out these rapid-result tests, which tend to be offered by private healthcare providers, is that they typically get results back within 48 hours as opposed to the nasal swab test offered by the City which can take over ten days to get results back.
Persee said that antigen tests currently make up “a small percentage” of COVID-19 tests in Houston, which means that even if they were included in City metrics it wouldn’t significantly affect the overall trend of COVID-19’s spread, which is what he believes residents should be keeping an eye on primarily instead of watching any one specific metric.
However, Persse believes that the CDC may soon update their guidance on whether or not to include antigen tests as they become used by more healthcare providers and as more research is done to pinpoint exactly how reliable they really are.
“That’ll be a CDC and state decision if they start counting them. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if at some point that they do,” Persse said. “I think that their concern is the accuracy of the tests, but we’ll have to wait and see what they decide, and we will follow the national standard.”