On Thursday, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo shared with the public news about the local arrival of a dangerous strain of COVID-19, while Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner gave an update on the city's vaccination distribution and shared his thoughts on Wednesday’s mob violence in the U.S. Capitol.
Hidalgo confirmed in a press conference that a highly contagious mutation of the coronavirus first discovered in the United Kingdom has finally showed up in Harris County.
“This variant has the potential to throw jet fuel on an already dangerous situation, and the reason for that is it’s something of a turbo-charged version of the virus in the sense that it’s a lot more contagious,” Hidalgo said.
The person infected with the U.K. variant — which is called B.1.1.7 and which experts claim is “up to 70 percent more contagious,” Hidalgo said — is a 30-to-40-year-old man who lives in southwestern Harris County outside the city of Houston. It’s the first documented case of this virus mutation in the state of Texas.
While scientists have found that this version of COVID-19 doesn’t cause more severe illness and doesn’t appear to be resistant to the currently available coronavirus vaccines, the ease with which it spreads between people has led to a massive surge in cases in England, which resulted in new sweeping national lockdown restrictions across the pond.
Just because this is the first local case doesn’t mean the variant isn’t already present in our community; It turns out this infected Harris County resident has no recent travel history, so it’s likely that he caught the new strain through community spread.
Hidalgo warned that this easier-to-catch coronavirus has shown up at a particularly crappy time for local hospitals given that just this Tuesday, the regional COVID-19 hospitalization rate was dangerously high enough to trigger more reopening rollbacks per Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders.
“I hope that this strain is another wake-up call. We had one earlier this week, here’s another one,” Hidalgo said. “Let’s heed that. We’re hearing the very last warning signs, and so it's incumbent on us to do our part.”
In his own press conference, Turner said that as far as he’s concerned, Houstonians should assume that the U.K. coronavirus strain is already present within the city and should act accordingly.
“If it’s in Harris County, it’s in the city of Houston, okay? That’s just my attitude, it’s just that close,” Turner said.
On Thursday, the Houston Health Department reported an additional 1,586 cases of COVID-19 and four new deaths from the coronavirus. That put’s Houston’s cumulative case total at 124,712 and the city’s death toll at 1,580 since the pandemic began nearly a year ago. Harris County as a whole has recorded 253,612 coronavirus cases and 2,680 deaths as of Thursday.
Turner said that this weekend, the city health department will be giving out COVID-19 vaccines at Minute Maid Park, but he explained that’s only because the city’s current vaccine distribution site, the Bayou City Event Center, is booked for the weekend. He stressed that only people who had already made appointments to get the vaccine before all the slots filled up on Monday will be able to get vaccinated at the Minute Maid Park location, and said that no walk-up appointments will be accepted.
The health department is still in the process of setting up a “mega-site” for local vaccinations, Turner said, but the city hasn’t gotten enough doses from the state to make that possible yet. He said that so far, the city health department has been able to vaccinate “about 1,000 people a day” since last Saturday.
“As we get more, we can do more [vaccinations],” Turner said, “but no additional appointments are being made at this time. Appointments are based on vaccine availability, and may be adjusted based on the department’s allotment.”
Given Wednesday’s horrific mob attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump that led to four deaths, Turner and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo both said that local police have stepped-up security at City Hall. Acevedo said HPD is on high-alert for threats of potential right-wing violence across the city, but that no such threats have been identified by HPD at this time.
Turner didn’t mince words in expressing his disgust at “the blatant disrespect exhibited by that mob, who acted in a direct attempt to prevent the peaceful transition of power,” calling Wednesday’s violence “a national disgrace and an international embarrassment.”
Calling it a mistake to only fixate on Trump’s role in fomenting Wednesday’s riot, Turner said he believes “You have to focus on the enablers, those who stood-up Donald Trump, those who are perpetuating these falsehoods.”
“They’re the enablers, and you have to call them out. And you get no credit for all of a sudden talking about ‘We are opposed to violence’ when you incited people to do it,” Turner said.
He didn’t call out any of those enablers by name himself on Thursday, but tweeted on Wednesday that “Texans should hold Sen. Ted Cruz accountable for this fiasco” based on Cruz’s efforts to halt the certification of Biden’s victory and for fanning the flames of Trump’s baseless election fraud accusations.
Turner also highlighted what he called the “glaring double standard” of both the police response and the Republican reaction to Wednesday’s violence — perpetrated by mostly white Trump supporters — compared to the largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests this summer after George Floyd’s killing.
“America must deal with it, and quite frankly, it was very painful,” Turner said. “I heard from my daughter about this — she said ‘Dad, they didn’t treat them the same way that they treated the protesters during the summer,’ and I have to agree.”
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