On Monday afternoon, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Dr. Persse of the Houston Health Department warned city residents that troubling upticks in Houston’s COVID-19 metrics could portend a dangerous coronavirus surge if people don’t take precautions soon.
Turner said that weeks of watching Houston’s COVID-19 test positivity rate decline led him to suspend the city’s coronavirus update news conferences for the past couple of weeks, but that he “felt compelled to start bringing these conferences back on a more regular basis” based on the record-setting numbers of new coronavirus cases in other parts of the country.
Houston’s COVID-19 positivity rate had crept up to 6.5 percent as of Friday, Turner said, which represents a 1.1 percent uptick in a 14-day span. The city had previously celebrated hitting its long-held 5 percent positivity rate milestone two weeks earlier, back on October 9th (the rate tends to tick upward a few decimal points as testing data trickles in to the health department).
“It’s moving in the wrong direction. Before it goes much further than that, it is important for us to sound the alarm for people in the city of Houston,” Turner said.
The Houston Health Department reported only 168 new cases of COVID-19 — 127 from within the past 14 days — and 0 new deaths on Monday, which puts the city’s total cumulative coronavirus case tally at 83,159 and leaves the city’s death toll at 1,315.
But despite those relatively low new case numbers, Turner said that overall, “the number of recent cases reported daily is beginning to increase.”
Another local metric that has Turner and Persse concerned is an increase in the trace amounts of coronavirus pooped into the city’s sewage system, as measured by the health department’s ongoing wastewater study.
Parts of town highlighted in red in the above graphic, Persse said, have been identified as locations where the spread of COVID-19 is increasing, which encompass a huge chunk of the city.
“We now have three metrics that are showing increased activity of the virus in our community,” Persse said.
“These metrics are concerning, and I am worried that this could be the first sign of a trend in the wrong direction that could sicken more Houstonians and strain our hospital system,” Turner said.
Turner didn’t want to characterize the state of the local pandemic as a surge or a third wave, as Harris County Public Health’s Dr. Umair Shah did on Twitter earlier Monday. The mayor did mention that he was concerned by how many maskless Houstonians he saw in large groups this weekend while out on a bike ride, and stressed that widespread use of masks was the closest thing we have to a vaccine right now.
“We have the power, right now, to stop this before it even becomes a trend,” Turner said. “We have the power to stop this virus from getting out of hand like we are seeing in other parts of the country and in west Texas,” he continued, in reference to the record-setting 85,000-plus new cases announced across America on Friday, and a troubling surge of cases in El Paso that led Gov. Greg Abbott to send in teams of additional healthcare workers and to set up new temporary hospital facilities in the city.
The number of COVID-19 patients in Harris County hospitals has stayed relatively stable since September, although Persse did remind folks that hospitalizations are “a lagging indicator,” and explained that there has been a slight upward trend in COVID-19 patients in general hospital beds in the county in the past week and a half.
“The virus hasn’t changed. The virus is the same as it’s always been. It will take advantage of whatever opportunity we give it,” Persse said. “We must be giving it an opportunity because it’s starting to spread, and so this is our window of opportunity to slow down the virus so that we can keep people from being hospitalized and keeping people who get hospitalized from going to the intensive care unit.”
“This is all very important,” he continued. “It’s very doable, we’ve done it before… I don’t have to tell you again, but it’s wearing a mask, washing your hands, and don’t gather in large groups.” Persse then warned against the onset of pandemic fatigue, and criticized those COVID-skeptical Houstonians who might give family members a hard time for social distancing and wearing masks, especially given that 40 percent of people with COVID-19 don’t show symptoms but can still spread the fatal disease.
“Those folks who are being really diligent, we should respect and support their behaviors as they do this,” he said. “Nobody should be feeling embarrassed or afraid to wear a mask or afraid to socially distance themselves. That’s the smart thing to do.”
Turner was also asked about a new petition drive seeking to take away the City Council agenda-setting power he enjoys thanks to Houston’s longtime “strong-mayor” form of government.
The Houston Charter Amendment Petition Coalition, a newly-formed group which describes itself as “A coalition of Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, Labor Organizations, and grassroots activists,” announced Monday that it’s hoping to seek enough signatures from Houston residents to force a citywide vote on changing the Houston City Charter to allow any three councilmembers the power to place an item on the council’s agenda, a power that only the mayor has currently.
In a separate Monday press conference, four of the group’s leaders — local conservative activist Charles Blain, Houston Professional Fire Fighters’ Association president Marty Lancton, Democratic former councilmember Sue Lovell and Democratic Socialists of America Houston leader Bryan LaVergne — described their effort as nonpartisan attempt to more equally spread out City Council’s power to help make it easier for the issues Houston residents care about to be considered.
Turner, predictably, didn’t sound thrilled about the idea. If implemented, he threatened that the reform would cause a Trumpian level of chaos within City Council, which he was quick to claim tends not to have that many highly-divided votes on new city policies.
“If they want that, they can go to D.C., okay? But not here in the city of Houston. I think the model that we have in place is one that has worked for us for a long, long, long time,” Turner said.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.