Friday marked a new step in re-opening Texas businesses. Restaurants can now expand their capacity to 75%, up from 50% capacity in the previous step of Phase 3 of re-opening the state. Along with that good news comes the bad – local officials are delivering messages of doom and gloom about the possibility that Texas is experiencing a second wave of COVID-19 infections.
The national media is eagerly reporting on a pattern of increasing cases in some states that have been at the forefront of re-opening, such as Texas. But is it as bad as some are reporting? That is not as clear yet as some would have you think.
The number of hospitalizations has hit a record high this week, with the end of the week finding sustained daily increases. That is troubling but the increases haven’t overwhelmed the hospitals. There are still ICU beds available in Houston, for example. Dallas County is reporting a higher number of new cases being reported than Harris County, though the population of Dallas is smaller. It has been three months since the first case of COVID-19 was reported and elected officials are concerned that the trend of new infections and hospitalizations is not looking good.
The new infections reported are likely due to increased activity over Memorial Day weekend. The Houston area numbers are going in the wrong direction.
Pretty much all the numbers are moving in the wrong direction at this point,” Dr. David Persse, director of the Houston Health Department, told KHOU 11’s Jeremy Rogalsky on Tuesday.
“We’ve seen an array of numbers that are all unfortunately going in the wrong direction,” said president and CEO Dr. Marc Boom.
Daily COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Houston trauma service area hit back-to-back record highs Monday and Tuesday, with 614 and 622 cases, respectively, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Daily new cases in the Greater Houston area began to spike two weeks ago, with the most ever in the region recorded Saturday with 835.
In Harris County, which includes the city of Houston, 483 new cases were reported Saturday, the most since early April.
Harris County officials have introduced a COVID-19 threat-level system. Currently, the county is at Level 2, with Level 1 being the highest level. It means there is a significant threat and the coronavirus is uncontrolled. The new system is meant to keep residents updated on the status of the virus. It can also be used as justification for local officials to reimpose lockdown measures that have loosened under Governor Abbott’s orders. The governor’s orders trump local orders but that won’t stop Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo from predictions of disaster on the horizon so she can tell everyone to stay home again.
“We still have a long road ahead of us to end this epidemic, and we have to accept that life as usual probably won’t be returning anytime soon. The only way out of this crisis is for the community to work together,” Hidalgo said.
The system measures coronavirus threat on a numerical scale with Level 1/red representing the highest threat and Level 4/green being the lowest threat.
Hildalgo said we’re currently at Level 2/orange, which means there is a significant threat and virus spread is uncontrolled despite state and local health efforts. It’s advised residents have minimal contact with others.
Level 3/yellow represents a moderate but controlled threat.
The county said should the scale reach a Level 1 threat, it would mean the Houston area is experiencing an outbreak and it’s worsening. Residents would be asked to stay home and minimize contact with others.
Hidalgo admits there are “plenty” of ICU hospital beds available. A temporary hospital facility built at NRG Stadium to handle an overflow of patients from area hospitals at the expense of taxpayers and never used may be rebuilt if the need arises. Taxpayers can be on the hook once again for that decision. Both Mayor Turner and Hidalgo continue to stress the importance of wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding large gatherings.
Some restaurants are closing after re-opening, due to employees testing positive for the coronavirus. This puts more stress on business owners who are just trying to hang on in this economy. With an increase in capacity to 75% allowed today, the number of restaurants who have to temporarily re-shutter again will likely increase due to a rise in infections among staff. It’s going to be a bumpy process until a vaccine is available or medication is able to manage the disease.
My guess is that local officials will move to reimpose stay at home orders to mitigate the virus outbreak. Note Hidalgo’s hyperbole – “the precipice of disaster.” That’s scary, right? She’ll get a lot of pushback, though, if she tries to shut down businesses again in the county.
“We may be approaching the precipice of a disaster,” said Hidalgo, the highest-ranking county executive. “It’s out of hand right now. The good news is it’s not severe out of hand.”
All of these new stories coming out serve to add to the confusion of what everyone should do during this plague. The guidelines of wearing masks, social distancing, and sticking with small gatherings are in effect yet here we are. If we dig a bit into some of the stories of recent deaths from COVID-19, we see that in Dallas County, for example, three deaths were reported Thursday – a Dallas woman in her 50s, a man in his 60s, and a man in his 70s. All were critically ill and already hospitalized, with underlying health conditions. It’s hard to look at their deaths, tragic as they are, the same as new infections of otherwise healthy people. Also interesting is something I heard last night on a local news broadcast – in Houston, the newest cases are coming from the 30-39-year-old age group. The next biggest group of new cases is from those people in their 40s, then 20s, then 50s. Are those people becoming infected as they go back to work or go out and socialize in public?