On Monday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner urged residents to cancel any planned gatherings ahead of the Christmas holiday later this week given the still raging pandemic, and called out Congress for neglecting to authorize any more emergency funding for city governments in the latest coronavirus relief package.
The Houston Health Department reported an additional 777 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and three additional deaths within the city, bringing Houston’s cumulative total case count to 111,211 and the city’s death toll to 1,530 since the start of the pandemic over nine months ago.
Turner also announced that the local COVID-19 test positivity rate is still rising — the city’s 14-day-average rate increased to 11.2 percent, up from the 10.5 percent reported last week, he said.
Given that increase and the steadily growing number of COVID-19 patients in local hospitals over the past several weeks, Turner echoed his statements ahead of Thanksgiving and asked Houstonians to keep their Christmas gatherings local and confined to people who they already share a roof with.
“I’m asking people to cancel your holiday gatherings if you plan to gather, especially outside of your immediate household,” Turner said. “I’m asking that you delay those activities. To avoid a surge on top of a surge, postpone traveling until sometime next year.”
“I know a lot of people are flying from here to there. I just don’t think that is a wise thing to do right now,” he continued.
Turner said that HHD and the Houston Fire Department will each receive 3,000 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine — the second coronavirus vaccine to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — within the next week or so.
HHD Director Dr. Stephen Williams stressed that we’re still in the very, very early stages of vaccine delivery, and explained that the state still hasn’t even determined what groups of Texans will be prioritized to get the scarce vaccine next once frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents are taken care of.
Turner urged all Houstonians to take any available vaccine for COVID-19 “when you have the opportunity,” and said he plans to take the vaccine himself “once my number is called.”
Regarding news from the last few days about a new mutation of the coronavirus running throughout the United Kingdom that’s caused England to enact sweeping new lockdowns reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic, Dr. David Persse of HHD said that the good news is this latest variation of the disease doesn’t appear to be any more deadly than the old variant, although it does spread much more rapidly.
“The new version of it is not more lethal, it does not make people any sicker at this point, and also importantly… it appears that the vaccine will still work against this new mutation,” Persse explained.
In terms of preventing this new British variant of COVID-19 from getting to Houston, Persse said that’s above the local health department’s pay grade, unfortunately. “At this point, there’s not a lot that we can do differently… It would be up to the CDC to put in whatever provisions at the federal level to restrict movement of people from the U.K. to the United States, but if they’re going to do that, that’s not our call,” he said.
Turner got the most animated when asked about the latest federal coronavirus relief package passed by Congress over the weekend, which contained funding for checks of at least $600 to most Americans and extended unemployment benefits, but no additional money for cash-strapped local governments.
“I cannot tell you how disappointed I am with Congress that they did not include local government in the stimulus package,” Turner said. “They say that they’re gonna come back later on. It may or may not be included, and for us, our budgets are due [and] have to balance by the end of June, so it may not even be in time for the City of Houston.”
Turner said that the city is currently facing a budget shortfall after losing out on an estimated $150 million in sales tax dollars thanks to the pandemic, and said that there’s a real chance that city-provided services like trash pickup, fire department service and policing might be affected if the feds don’t come through with some assistance for local governments sooner rather than later.
“I’m glad that they did something,” Turner said, “but I am very, very disappointed that local governments did not receive any assistance in this package.”