Coronavirus

As COVID-Strained Hospitals Send Patients Out Of State, Hidalgo Raises Harris County Threat Level To Red

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo fears this may be the worst wave of COVID-19 our region has faced thus far.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo fears this may be the worst wave of COVID-19 our region has faced thus far. Screenshot
A mere two weeks after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo raised the county’s COVID-19 threat level for the first time in months, on Thursday she increased it once again, this time to its highest red alert level amid the catastrophic surge in cases over the past several weeks that’s led to so many new coronavirus hospitalizations that local health care providers are close to their breaking points.

Joined by Houston Mayor Sylvester turner and local health officials including Houston’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Persse, Hidalgo said the Delta variant-driven increase in new daily cases of the coronavirus has led to hospitalization levels not seen in months that coupled with a strained local health care workforce has led some hospitals with empty beds they can’t fill due to lack of staff. Some hospitals are on the verge of running out of beds altogether.

“Cases and hospitalizations are increasing incredibly fast,” Hidalgo cautioned, warning that “If they keep increasing at this rate, this could be the worst wave of COVID we’ve had in our community.” The average person hospitalized with COVID-19 in Harris County now is “in their 40s, which means there’s people in their 30s and their 20s in the hospital right now,” Hidalgo said.

The county’s red alert threat level recommends that unvaccinated people halt all non-essential activities outside of their households. Hidalgo also implored both the unvaccinated and the vaccinated to resume wearing masks indoors when in public, and asked that vaccinated folks not go to emergency rooms unless they’re in dire need of immediate medical attention due to how strained local hospital capacity has become, especially in the region’s intensive care units.

But thanks to Gov. Abbott’s decision to strip local officials from being able to enforce any sort of widespread public health-minded recommendations like stay-at-home orders or to implement vaccine or face mask mandates, Hidalgo said she hoped county residents would heed her warnings and follow her recommendations, especially for unvaccinated residents to finally get one of the potentially life-saving shots.

“Nearly two out of three people of the eligible population in Harris County have had at least one shot. If you’re in the minority that has not gotten a shot, you’re the reason we’re here today,” Hidalgo said.

click to enlarge Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner warned that new daily COVID-19 hospitalizations are hitting peaks not seen since last summer's deadly wave. - SCREENSHOT
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner warned that new daily COVID-19 hospitalizations are hitting peaks not seen since last summer's deadly wave.
Screenshot
Turner pointed out that the Texas Medical Center just reported admitting over 300 COVID patients in the past 24 hours,”which was the peak of the second wave which was in June and July [of 2020].” Hidalgo noted that Harris County’s coronavirus test positivity rate has been doubling every 1.8 weeks, and has tripled to 15 percent from below 5 percent just 22 days ago.

An impassioned Persse explained “That is a 500 percent increase from a month ago. A 500 hundred percent increase. And when you look at the number of new cases that we’ve got in the community, it is 2,500 percent greater than it was a month ago.”

To illustrate the troubling lack of local hospital capacity, Persse said that “This weekend, we transferred a patient from the Houston area to — do not fall out of your chairs — to North Dakota.”

“This weekend, we transferred a patient from the Houston area to — do not fall out of your chairs — to North Dakota.” - Dr. David Persse, Houston's Chief Medical Officer

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“I have a family member,” Persse continued, “my own family member who is ill in the hospital in Livingtston. The closest bed they could find for him was in Austin. And then when they got into the details about how sick he was, they said ‘We can’t handle that, he’s too sick.’ Know where he is now? He’s in Shreveport, Louisiana.”

“So it is real, and it is happening now. The way out of this is vaccination,” Persse said. “I apologize if I sound alarmist, but in my world, wearing my EMS hat, the crisis is occurring. People out there in their homes who feel fine, you might not be able to see it. But if you have a heart attack, or if you break your ankle falling down the stairs, it may take a long time to get an ambulance to you, and we’re going to have a hard time finding a hospital to take care of you.”

Echoing his comments during a Thursday press conference touting the city and county’s upcoming back-to-school vaccination drive, Persse mentioned the Houston Health Department has watched the amount of COVID-19 residue in Houston area wastewater hit a level that’s more than triple its previous peak back in July of 2020.

“The wastewater activity by about two weeks predicts what we’re going to see in positivity rate, which the judge pointed out is skyrocketing. So the wastewater is still going up, and the positivity rate projects what happens about two weeks later in hospitalizations, which are already skyrocketing.”

“For the next three weeks or so, I see no relief on what’s happening,” Persse warned.

Turner reiterated that he has issued an order requiring city employees to start wearing masks when at work regardless of vaccination status, which seemingly flies in the face of Abbott’s order but that City Attorney Arturo Michel argued is legal given that Abbott’s executive directive “[cannot] limit the City’s rights as an employer to establish reasonable and necessary workplace safety rules for its employees.”

Hidalgo said the scariest part about the massive increase in those falling sick with the coronavirus thanks to the highly-spreadable Delta variant is that every new infection is a new chance for the virus to mutate, potentially into an even deadlier variant that may prove too much for the current vaccines to handle.

“There’s a limited window, and the reason is that the longer the virus spreads among the unvaccinated population, the greater the risk we all face that variants will evolve and will evade our vaccines,” Hidalgo said. “If you’re putting off being vaccinated, you’re not only gambling with your health and your life, but you’re doing that with the health of the rest of the community, including those who have gotten the vaccine.”

“This should not be about politics,” Hidalgo stressed, before launching into a plethora of vaccination sales-pitches for those who haven’t gotten a shot yet.

“If you’re someone who is skeptical of government, you don’t have to listen to me,” Hidalgo said. “You vaccinate because you acknowledge the incredible role the private sector has played to produce and distribute a vaccine so quickly, and reward the entrepreneurship and the risk-taking that brought this cure, this miracle, to the market.”

“If you’re a Trump supporter, get ‘the Trump Vaccine,’ something he so proudly touted as part of Operation Warp Speed, something even Sean Hannity now advises you to get,” she continued. “If you’re a Biden supporter, maybe you’ve already gotten the vaccine, but take the extra step and reach out to a neighbor, reach out to a friend, reach out to a family member or colleague who remains skeptical.”

“If you’re a Trump supporter, get ‘the Trump Vaccine,’ something he so proudly touted as part of Operation Warp Speed, something even Sean Hannity now advises you to get." - Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo

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Thankfully, Hidalgo said the local vaccination rate has started trending upward in recent weeks, including in local Black and Hispanic communities hit hard by the virus. But she cautioned that vaccinations need to increase even more to prevent even more needless suffering and death in our region.

“We’d been seeing vaccination rates trend down. We’re now seeing them trend up, and we need to keep that going, and we need to see bigger increases so that we turn that tide in our numbers before it’s too late,” Hidalgo 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