Turner Asks State GOP to Cancel Convention Amid Local Hospital Bed Crunch

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Monday that he's requesting that state Republicans cancel their in-person convention set to be held in Houston later this month due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Monday that he's requesting that state Republicans cancel their in-person convention set to be held in Houston later this month due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19. Screenshot
Between rapidly diminishing local hospital capacity and the way the coronavirus is still rampaging through Houston, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is pleading with state Republicans that this is no time to host a massive indoor get-together in his city.

In a Monday afternoon press conference, Turner announced that he’ll be sending a letter to the executive committee of the Republican Party of Texas strongly urging them to cancel their in-person convention in Houston out of concern for the safety of attendees, event staff and Houston residents.

“In this city, all other conferences and conventions have cancelled or been rescheduled to next year, with the exception of one,” said Turner, calling out state Republicans for seemingly disregarding the cries of public health experts and the Texas Medical Association, who have called on party leaders to opt for a virtual event instead.

The state GOP convention is currently set to bring more than 6,000 attendees to the George R. Brown Convention Center from July 16-18. On Thursday, July 2, the state GOP’s executive committee voted 40-20 to go forward with the in-person convention later in July. After that vote, Turner tweeted late Thursday night that the City of Houston would exercise their authority over city-owned venues like the convention center to mandate the use of face masks by all attendees.

Turner outlined a laundry list of additional restrictions his office plans to impose on the state Republican convention in the interest of limiting the spread of COVID-19 “if they elect to proceed,” including modifying the convention layout to ensure social distancing is possible, eliminating lines to promote social distancing, serving food in the form of individually plated meals so they can be grab-and-go, and limiting the use and occupancy capacity of elevators at the convention center.

He also said the City will enforce health screenings of attendees and workers, such as temperature and symptom checks, in addition to requiring the use of wristbands to validate that a given person has been checked under that system. Turner also mentioned strict rules about creating a system for attendees and employees to report COVID-19 symptoms and positive test results to the convention’s organizers, who would then be required to inform the City of Houston and the local officials from the hometown of any sick attendees to aid in contact tracing efforts.

Turner said if the event goes on as currently planned, there will be health inspectors on site every day that “will have the authority to immediately close the convention” if they witness any of these rules being broken.

“I’ve not yet talked to a medical professional who has said that this is a good idea to hold this convention at this time,” Turner said, before calling on the sponsors of the convention to join the call to cancel the in-person gathering in favor of a digital convention like he and former sponsor the Texas Medical Association have been publicly requesting.

The Houston Health Department reported on Monday 963 new cases of COVID-19 in the city, which puts the city’s cumulative positive case count at 24,336 since the start of the pandemic. Luckily, no new deaths of Houston residents have been reported over the past two days, Turner said.

click to enlarge Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department urged Texas Republicans to cancel their Houston convention before he addressed local hospital capacity concerns on Monday. - SCREENSHOT
Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department urged Texas Republicans to cancel their Houston convention before he addressed local hospital capacity concerns on Monday.

Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department echoed Turner’s sentiments and urged members of the Republican Party of Texas “to reconsider their position, keeping in mind their members and the people who will be supporting that event.”

Persse spoke to recent reports that a mutated version of COVID-19 may be spreading in Houston that’s similarly lethal but more easily spread, in addition to the newfound concern from scientists around the world that the coronavirus may be spread through particles that can linger in the air for far longer than initially assumed as reasons he’s even more concerned now about the GOP convention.

“If that’s the case, then that means that a superspreader event like a convention would probably be triply dangerous at this time,” Persse said.

Persse also described the ongoing efforts of local hospitals to increase their bed counts and staffing levels in order to be able to absorb the expected influx of COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks. He said that the federal government has sent an assessment team to Houston to see what resources local hospitals are in need of, and that he was glad to see that the State of Texas has sent around 120 nurses into hospitals in Houston and surrounding counties to help them expand bed capacity and provide relief for exhausted nurses.

“The healthcare system is working hard. They are increasing capacity both physically and with human resources. But it’s taking an awful lot of effort,” Persse said.

As we reported this Saturday, a Houston resident with COVID-19 was told Friday by doctors at SignatureCare Emergency Center at 1925 E. T C Jester Boulevard that he might need to be sent as far as Austin or even out of state were he to require hospitalization due to a lack of COVID-19 hospital bed capacity in Houston and surrounding cities.

Dr. Hashibul Hannan, one of the co-founders of the SignatureCare private emergency room chain, explained to the Houston Press on Monday that while SignatureCare hasn’t yet had to send anyone to be hospitalized outside of Texas, they have sent patients to hospitals in cities like Austin, Huntsville, Beaumont and Galveston over the past five to ten days. He said this is in stark contrast to the state of things back in May, when SignatureCare doctors had no problem at all finding space in local hospitals for their patients.

Hannan explained that SignatureCare’s doctors always call local hospitals first to see whether or not they have space for COVID-19 patients to be admitted, and that hospitals outside of Houston are only called if hospitals in Houston tell SignatureCare they don’t have any beds available.

“If we don’t find beds in the near vicinity, then we need to increase our radius,” Hannan said, “and it is conceivable that if we run out of options in Texas, we may have to go out of Texas.”

“It has not happened yet. I hope it never happens,” he continued, “but if someone were to make that comment, I think the idea was letting them know that we’re running out of beds in Houston.”

Hannan said he trusts that local hospitals are being truthful when they tell SignatureCare doctors that they don’t have beds available for their COVID-19 patients who require hospitalization, because if local hospitals did in fact have the capacity to support COVID-19 patients and were telling private, non-hospital healthcare providers like SignatureCare otherwise, that would be illegal.

“I’m under the impression that Houston does not have beds,” he said.
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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