In June of 2020, Hidalgo had implemented a rigorous COVID-19 alert system that incorporated five metrics including hospital population trends, ICU bed usage, new case trends and totals, and positivity rates.
Since the launch of the system last summer, Harris County has stubbornly remained at the highest level, “Red-Severe,” with county authorities instructing residents to stay home unless seeking essential items such as groceries or medicine. As recently as a few weeks ago, Hidalgo had defended the system as necessary for protecting residents, although all other Texas counties have reduced their threat level ratings.
Following a peak over the holidays, COVID-19 cases in the region declined dramatically in early 2021, and with a few slight upticks, have continued to decline gradually since March. According to the county, the 14-day average of newly reported cases is 319 per day for Harris County’s estimated 4.8 million residents, and hospitalization and ICU bed usage have also steadily decreased.
Following downward trends and relaxation of state guidelines, many county businesses have been fully open, and in recent weeks fewer residents have been observing the Level Red guidelines and the Houston Astros recently announced Minute Maid Park will be open for home games at full capacity beginning May 25.
Two Republican county commissioners, Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) and Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4), have been urging Hidalgo to lower the threat level, open county libraries, and return to in-person meetings of the commissioners court, but Hidalgo has resisted these requests until now.
Earlier Tuesday, on social media Ramsey drew attention to a news segment referring to the alert system as a local COVID-19 “mood ring,” and lamented that residents had lost trust in local officials since policy had “ceased to reflect reality and facts.”
During a Tuesday press conference, however, Hidalgo announced that the county will adjust the metrics to lower the alert to Level 2: “orange-significant threat.”
“Our new system is going to de-emphasize the importance of positivity rate and it will raise the threshold for getting to red,” said Hidalgo.
She explained that fewer people were getting tested and so positivity rate measurements were skewed and not likely to decline below the 5 percent threshold the county had initially established.
However, she cautioned that at Level 2 the relaxed protocols would only apply to those who had been vaccinated for COVID-19. With reportedly just over 32 percent of county residents now fully vaccinated, the county’s Level 2 guidelines instruct unvaccinated persons to continue to minimize all contacts, wear masks, and avoid gatherings.
Hidalgo also announced that beginning Wednesday, county buildings and libraries would be open to 50 percent capacity, but that they would continue to require masking and social distancing.
Only moments before Hidalgo’s announcement, Governor Greg Abbott issued a new executive order that prohibits other governments, including counties, from requiring anyone to wear a mask.
“Texans, not government, should decide their best health practices, which is why masks will not be mandated by public school districts or government entities,” said Abbott in a press release.
In response to a media question about whether Harris County requirements might conflict with the new state standards, Hidalgo said she had not yet read the executive order.
Over the course of the pandemic, Hidalgo has repeatedly clashed with other government officials over her authority to implement protocols. Last year she lamented that both President Trump and Abbott had blocked her authority to enforce business closures and mask requirements, and her attempts to keep schools closed by county orders were thwarted by the attorney general and state officials.
During the press conference, Dr. Maria Rivera also announced that the Harris County Public Health Department had partnered with eight local school districts and had vaccinated around 2,200 students in 28 schools. She urged parents to bring children 12 and over to NRG Park if their school did not have a vaccination program.
“We have many more events planned with many other districts in the region and plan to continue to vaccinate our adolescents,” said Rivera.
The available COVID-19 vaccines continue to prompt controversy, especially for children who reportedly have a low risk of contracting the virus, but multiple school districts and local government officials around the state are pressing for student vaccination sites.
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Holly Hansen is a reporter for The Texan 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.