A top official in Houston says the time has come for “drastic action” on the coronavirus, with a COVID-19 surge filling ICU beds, forcing the city to import medical workers, and taking an especially harsh toll on the Latino community.
The warning came as Houston Rockets superstar guard Russell Westbrook revealed Monday that he has tested positive, and after a brutal heat wave curtailed testing over the weekend.
“What we feared would happen is coming to pass,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s chief executive, said at a Monday press conference. “We’re crossing or approaching hospital surge capacity day after day as a matter of course.”
Harris County Public Health data shows some 1,400 new cases were reported on Sunday, and some 1,900 on Saturday—continuing a trend across much of the South and West after states lifted lockdown measures.
Even worse, the agency’s executive director, Dr. Umair Shah, says the percentage of tests that are positive is increasing—showing the spike cannot be explained by greater testing capacity.
“That is a key concern for us from a public health stance,” Shah said. “We are at a critical time in our community.”
Harris County now has the highest number of cases in Texas—more than 45,000 infections and at least 458 deaths, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University. But the whole state is experiencing spikes. More than 8,000 new cases were reported statewide on Sunday.
While the number of new deaths in Houston and elsewhere in Texas remains far lower than at the beginning of the pandemic in hot spots like New York and New Jersey, officials said many state residents are seriously ill.
At the end of May, 15 percent of Harris County’s intensive care beds were filled with COVID-19 patients; that’s now up to 48 percent.
“What this means is reports of people having to wait for an ICU bed when they need it, ICU beds becoming more and more scarce, having to import doctors and nurses to keep up with the demand,” Hidalgo said.
“If it wasn’t clear before, it’s obvious now that having so much still open—from restaurants to all size indoor events to water parks—is not going to turn this thing around, which is why I continue to call for an enforceable stay-home order.”
Hidalgo and other Houston-area officials have called on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to give the county the power to impose more restrictive measures than he has ordered at the state level. Abbott did recently mandate mask use in counties with more than 20 COVID-19 cases, and suggested “the next step would have to be a lockdown” if it didn't pay dividends.
“The strategy of just filling our hospital beds with sick residents is just wrong,” Judge Hidalgo said. “It’s wrong morally and it’s also not working.”
“We need to take drastic action,” she said.
She noted that the the surge was hitting the Hispanic community particularly hard. Although they make up 44 percent of the population, they have accounted for as much as 65 percent of the hospitalizations in recent weeks.
But, she added, “sooner or later it’s going to catch up with all of us; the virus doesn’t discriminate.”