At a Tuesday press conference, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called for residents to forgo holiday gatherings and voluntarily get tested for COVID-19.
Citing this week’s COVID-19 positivity rate of 8.2 percent in a county with an estimated population of 4.7 million, Hidalgo said every indicator is “moving in the wrong direction.” She noted that there are currently 234 patients in intensive care units and 516 in general hospital beds, and urged the community to take new precautions.
“Today I want to urge every resident in Harris County to do two things. First, cancel all gatherings, large and small, unless you’re with your household,” said Hidalgo. “This is simply not the time for gatherings and get-togethers with people you do not share a home with.”
Hidalgo added that everyone should be tested since the virus was “invisible,” and the only way to know who needed to quarantine is to have everyone tested.
Acknowledging that masking and social distancing were not enough, she added that she would be using the county’s emergency alert system to message all residents about the need to stop gatherings and seek free testing.
Within an hour of the conclusion of the press conference, the first of the scheduled texts went out.
Hidalgo expanded on comments she made last week at a virtual state of the county address lamenting her lack of authority to enforce her recommendations.
“The state needs to step in and lead or get out of the way and let us lead,” she said.
“It is my hope that these numbers nationally also usher in aggressive leadership from the state and federal level that finally breaks us out of a cycle of unsustainable reopenings and false hopes that has already lead to needless deaths without delivering a stronger economy.”
Although earlier this year, Hidalgo sought to keep the county on lockdown, Governor Greg Abbott clarified that under disaster declarations local officials cannot supersede state-level orders.
Last week an appeals court ruled against a renewed El Paso County lockdown, and Hidalgo expressed alarm over the decision.
“I am concerned about what’s happening in El Paso and seeing that they’ve got no recourse,” said Hidalgo.
She also noted that Dr. Umair Shah, director of Harris County Public Health department, has been appointed by Democratic Washington state Governor Jay Inslee to serve as the new state secretary of health.
Local media reported Shah’s resignation Tuesday morning prior to a special meeting of the Harris County Commissioners Court on unrelated matters. Commissioner Steve Radack (R-Pct.3) asked why commissioners had not been notified that Shah had resigned, and Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said he only knew what had been published in the Houston Chronicle earlier.
Hidalgo told Radack she would not be discussing the change at that time and noted no action was needed since Dr. Shah would continue to serve Harris County until December 18.
At the press conference, Dr. Shah spoke on the need to follow Hidalgo’s advice and noted that the county is still at threat level red.
Shortly after announcing the county’s COVID-19 threat level system, on June 27 Hidalgo announced the county was at threat level red and said all residents should stay home unless it was absolutely necessary to leave or unless they were one of those deemed to be “essential workers.”
Last month most of the metrics Harris County uses to determine threat levels had fallen significantly from July peaks, but because the positivity rate was still slightly above five percent, officials never adjusted the threat levels.
On Monday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner had also urged residents to limit Thanksgiving gatherings to only household members and advised against traveling or allowing any travelers to visit.
Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of Harris Health System, also spoke at the press conference, saying that Thanksgiving had the potential to be a worse “super spreader” event than Memorial Day or the Fourth of July.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel, the vaccine is coming, not for a few months, not quite available for everybody,” said Porsa. “We need this next 6 to 8 weeks…for us to be able to get to the point where we have the vaccine available for general distribution.”
He added that if residents felt they must gather, they should limit numbers to five people and certainly no more than 10.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.