While the heavy rains from Tropical Storm Beta that shuttered much of the region this week are slowly moving east, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo maintains her stance that area businesses and schools should remain closed due to COVID-19.
Last June, Hidalgo unveiled her COVID-19 threat level system based on multiple metrics for determining when it would be “safe” for residents to resume some or all activities. The metrics, developed in coordination with Harris County Public Health Executive Director Dr. Umair Shah, require a multitude of conditions be met before any reduction in the threat level rating.
Since the unveiling of the system, county COVID-19 case and hospitalization data indicates a July peak with declines in August and September. In addition, reporting issues for the region became national news when Bloomberg reported that the county was continuing to include cases that were weeks or months old in the daily “new case” counts. The county also counts a second positive test for the same individual as a “new case” in the daily tallies.
The health department says it is now correcting the test date reporting issue, and according to Harris Ready the positivity rate has fallen to 5.8 percent and the 14-day ICU bed usage average rate is at 12 percent as of September 20.
Hidalgo however, has kept the alert system at “Red-Level 1-Severe” since June 27.
According to the county’s published threat level explanation, Level 1 means “Stay Home,” indicating that “outbreaks are present and worsening and that testing and contact tracing capacity is strained or exceeded.”
In addition to the declining positivity rates, since August there has been a dramatic drop off in the number of individuals seeking tests at the many free testing sites around Houston and Harris County. Mayor Sylvester Turner has taken to imploring even asymptomatic residents to seek testing and asserts that there is ample testing capacity.
Early last week, Judge Hidalgo suggested she was close to reducing the threat level to orange, but maintains that positivity rates must be below 5 percent and all metrics must be met before she will change the rating.
Under the red threat-level rating, Hidalgo not only says that residents should stay at home, but that the county’s schools should remain closed to in-person learning.
Hidalgo, however, does not have the legal authority to enforce her guidelines for non-essential businesses and schools.
Earlier this year she lamented that state authorities had “stripped away her authority” after Governor Greg Abbott clarified that local officials could not supersede state-level orders, and that local health departments could not order blanket school closures.
During an interview last week, Hidalgo said that she had “things under control” last April, but that it was President Trump who had “stripped away her authority” to run the county under coronavirus conditions.
While many individuals, businesses, and schools have complied with Hidalgo’s insistence that it is not safe to reopen, pushback has been significant. Last month 10 public school districts signed on to a letter arguing the county’s benchmarks for school openings were overly stringent, and several districts have resumed limited in-person instruction while offering remote learning too in accordance with state guidelines.
At a recent Humble ISD board meeting Trustee Lori Twomey also shared concerns about Hidalgo and Harris Health’s reporting problems, and provided examples of both Hidalgo and Turner misreporting data in September by more than 700 cases.
“What is absolutely unreasonable, and might I say intellectually dishonest, is to knowingly propagate false data in an effort to manipulate and instill fear,” said Twomey.
Humble ISD Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Fagen was one of the 10 who signed the letter objecting to county school opening benchmarks, and the district has been open to in-person instruction since August.
According to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, active COVID-19 cases in Harris County are at about 0.35 percent, and statewide at about 0.22 percent.
Last week Governor Abbott announced that some businesses could reopen to 75 percent capacity, but that bars must remain closed.
While Houston and Harris County officials were critical of the state plan to reopen “too soon,” many other Texas leaders have asserted that Abbott is not opening enough, and state Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) yesterday announced he would be withdrawing his support from the governor due to the continued lockdown policies.
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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.