Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner spoke Wednesday about the abrupt closure of China’s local consulate office and shared new statistics about COVID-19 in an afternoon press conference.
The Trump administration did not inform the City of Houston ahead of time about its decision to shutter the Chinese consulate located on Montrose Boulevard, Turner said. The mayor explained that China is the City of Houston’s third largest trade partner accounting for over $14 billion in import-export trade annually, and that he hopes that “whatever the friction may be” between the United States and China “can be resolved peacefully, and that at some point in time the consulate will reopen.”
Especially relevant given the ongoing pandemic, Turner said, is the fact that China has supplied a large amount of the personal protective equipment being used in the Houston area to by healthcare workers fighting COVID-19. "We have not done in the United States a good job of manufacturing those necessary products in this country," Turner said. "Now that should change, but for right now, many of the PPEs that we are utilizing, wearing, supplying to our first responders and others have come directly from China."
Turner also stressed that he’s worried about the possibility that harsh rhetoric toward China — like Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida’s Wednesday tweet that described the Houston consulate as “the central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies” — may lead to the harassment of Chinese American Houston residents.
“I am their mayor just like I’m the mayor of any other person from any other country in the City of Houston, and we don’t want anyone discriminated against,” Turner said. On that note, Turner then made a thinly-veiled jab at President Trump’s habit of referring to COVID-19 as “the China virus.”
“This is the coronavirus, COVID-19. That’s its name,” Turner said.
Earlier in the press conference, Turner announced that the Houston Health Department reported 773 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, along with an additional 8 COVID-19 deaths within the City of Houston, putting Houston’s cumulative positive case total at 38,516 and the death toll inside the city limits at 346. As of Wednesday, there have been a combined 59,924 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 575 deaths between Houston and the rest of Harris County according to the Harris County Public Health Department.
Mayor Turner highlighted “a slight drop” in Houston’s COVID-19 testing positivity rate, a small dip in COVID-19 hospitalizations and relatively steady COVID-19 intensive care unit occupancy over the past few days as signs for extremely cautious optimism, but said Houston still has “a long way to go” to get to the other side of the current pandemic, and that he still supports a temporary two-week Houston shutdown to slow COVID-19’s spread. Turner specifically referenced Boston and New York City’s current positivity rates of under 5 percent compared to Houston’s, which still sits at approximately 25 percent, as proof that the pandemic is far from over locally.
Turner also took time to recognize all of the municipal employees who have passed away due to COVID-19. In addition to Natarvia Robertson and Michael Sanchez, the two Public Works Department employees the City recognized on Monday, Turner announced the deaths of City employees LaTonya Lewis, Nicole Rodriguez and Angel Barnhart due to COVID-19. He also highlighted Houston Fire Department Captain Leroy Lucio, who passed away of COVID-19 in San Antonio earlier this week.
“All of these employees are heroes for our city,” Turner said.
Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department also took the podium to explain that “we are nowhere close to herd immunity,” the public health term for when a virus has spread so significantly through a community that it becomes significantly less likely that new infections will take place.
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Persse said that public health experts currently believe 70 to 80 percent of the United States would need to have been infected by COVID-19 in order to reach that threshold, and he cited a recent CDC report that pegged New York City’s estimated infection rate at less than 7 percent despite having the worst recorded COVID-19 outbreak in the United States early on in the pandemic. He stressed that instead of hoping to be saved by herd immunity or a vaccine, Houstonians should focus on “being smarter than the virus” by continuing to wear face masks in public and practicing social distancing.
Later, Persse referred to troubling reports he’s heard that some Houston employers are requiring their employees who fear they may be sick with or have been exposed to the coronavirus to keep coming into work until they can present an official positive COVID-19 test result. He said that approach was extremely reckless given the scientific consensus that some people may have COVID-19 with no visible symptoms and are still able to infect those around them.
“If you want to do what’s right for the community, you would not pressure someone who is concerned that they’re infected with COVID-19 to come to work because they don’t have a test yet,” Persse said.
Turner ended his remarks with a reminder for Houstonians to keep an eye pointed toward local weather reports given the likelihood of heavy rain at the end of this week and through the weekend due to tropical disturbances in the Gulf of Mexico.