Coronavirus

Turner Touts Back-To-School Vaccine Push As New COVID Wave Pushes Hospitals To Their Limits

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner hopes a vaccination push through the month of August will help slow the Delta variant's spread.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner hopes a vaccination push through the month of August will help slow the Delta variant's spread. Screenshot
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Wednesday a new month-long push to get more COVID-19 vaccines into the arms of Houston area students 12 years and older, their parents and school staff ahead of the fast approaching school year as the Delta variant continues to surge throughout the region amid a new wave of infections and hospitalizations that experts predict will likely only worsen in the weeks to come.

“As families and educators prepare to go back to school, it is critical that they get vaccinated. I can’t underscore that enough,” Turner said. “I am a strong proponent of in-person learning. In order for that to take place, we need to make sure that the environment is as safe as possible.”

Turner said that in collaboration with several local school districts, the Houston Health Department and Harris County Public Health, the city will be hosting “Super Saturday” vaccination drives at multiple local schools starting this Saturday, August 7. Turner announced the participating schools that will be offering vaccines this upcoming Saturday, and explained that additional vaccine drives will be held at Houston area schools every Saturday during the month of August.

click to enlarge The following schools will host free, walk-up vaccinations for those 12-years-old and up this Saturday, August 7. - SCREENSHOT
The following schools will host free, walk-up vaccinations for those 12-years-old and up this Saturday, August 7.
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Dr. David Persse, the city’s Chief Medical Officer, painted a dire picture about the local state of the pandemic as he implored the unvaccinated to get one of the free, potentially life-saving shots as soon as possible, and said that anyone refusing to get vaccinated at this point should “consider that you represent a potential danger to yourself and others, and most particularly, your own family.”

“It’s simple: Over 2.5 billion people on the planet have been vaccinated,” Persse said. “If there was a problem with the vaccine, we would know that by now. So for those folks who say ‘Well I’m not so sure, I’m a little afraid,’ I don’t know what you’re afraid of.”

Persse pointed out the startling leap in local hospitalizations for COVID-19 over the past month due to how the highly transmissible Delta variant has run roughshod through the approximately 40 percent of Harris County residents who remain unvaccinated, as well as the skyrocketing local test positivity rate.

click to enlarge Dr. David Persse shared Harris County hospitalization data that shows we're in the middle of yet another COVID-19 surge. - SCREENSHOT
Dr. David Persse shared Harris County hospitalization data that shows we're in the middle of yet another COVID-19 surge.
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“The hospitals right now are full,” Persee warned. “The emergency departments are holding as many as 30 admissions in some hospitals, waiting for beds upstairs that simply don’t exist right now.”

“Hospitals are having ambulance crews stay with patients in the hallway for hours on end because they don’t have enough room in the emergency department because they don’t have enough room in the hospital,” he continued.

Anyone who refuses to get vaccinated, Persse argued, is “helping spread the virus in the community” and is contributing to the rapid filling of local hospital beds that’s dangerous not only for those sick with the coronavirus, but for those with other life-threatening conditions that may not be able to be treated in hospitals overrun and filled to capacity with COVID patients.

click to enlarge Houston Health Department data shows the local test positivity rate is hurtling toward heights not seen in months. - SCREENSHOT
Houston Health Department data shows the local test positivity rate is hurtling toward heights not seen in months.
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“Heart attack patients, stroke patients [and] car accident patients are being brought to hospitals that just simply do not have the space to handle them,” Persse said. He then shared recent data that the level of COVID-19 residue detected in Houston’s wastewater system recently was more than triple the amount detected during last summer’s deadly COVID wave in July.

“We are at a level of virus in the wastewater that we have never seen before, and the wastewater predicts what we’ll see in [test] positivity by about two weeks [and] predicts what we’ll see in hospitalizations by about two weeks,” Persse explained. “So our situation in the hospitals, which is already dire and dangerous, I can pretty much guarantee you is only going to worsen over the next four weeks.”

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II joined Turner and Persse to encourage all local residents 12 and older (no vaccine has been authorized for use in those 11 or younger yet) to get vaccinated ahead of the upcoming school year.

“We’re doing everything that we can to protect our students and our staff,” House said, “but we need the community’s help. I’m vaccinated. My wife is vaccinated. My 16-year-old daughter is vaccinated and my 10-year-old son will be vaccinated once a release of a vaccine for 11-year-olds and under happens.”

Turner mentioned that he recently reached out to Gov. Greg Abbott and asked him to rescind his executive orders that have barred school districts and local governments from issuing mask mandates. Turner also reminded Houston residents that he has ordered all city employees working in-person at city facilities to once again wear face masks when at work, in defiance of Abbott’s directives.

When House was asked whether he would follow Turner’s lead and issue a mask mandate for HISD students and staff despite Abbott’s executive order, he said HISD has not considered issuing a mask requirement.

“We do know that masks are important and masks will be strongly encouraged for all of our schools,” House said.

“It’s just not something that we’ve moved forward to do. Our hope is that what we’ll see is many people move forward to be vaccinated, and many people move forward and do the responsible thing and wear a mask as well. That’s what our hope and expectation is,” House continued.

House said “there’s not a particular threshold” of positive COVID-19 cases for shutting down a particular HISD campus, and that any decision to shut down schools or specific classrooms would be made on a case-by-case basis.

While the state Legislature failed to allocate funding to allow for school districts to pay for virtual learning, House said HISD will require staff and students who test positive for the coronavirus to isolate at home, and that he’d been told the state education department will soon give some additional guidance for how long infected students and staff should quarantine and how districts can expect to pay for virtual learning options for kids isolating at home sick with the coronavirus. “I haven’t gotten the particulars of that, but I understand that it is coming,” he said.

In reference to Abbott’s orders banning mask mandates, Turner encouraged community members (especially those with school-aged kids or who work at schools) to contact the governor if they’re in favor of giving schools the right to require masking.

“When ambulances are having to hold for hours with people inside these EMS units, that points to the severity of this situation, and it's only getting worse,” Turner said.

“You know, I’m kind of exhausted of getting into a tit-for-tat with the governor, and it’s not serving any useful purpose,” Turner continued. So let me just focus on these kids that need our effective stewardship on their behalf.”
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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