At a Monday press conference, Turner said the local positivity rate had increased from a low of 5.6 percent several weeks ago to 7.9 percent last week.
The health departments for both the city and Harris County have issued guidelines for celebrating the holidays which urge residents to have small dinners with fellow household members only. The county suggests small outdoor gatherings with additional family carry moderate risk, while large indoor gatherings “with individuals from outside of your household” is a high-risk activity that should be avoided.
Turner also reminded residents that masks are mandatory in the city, and that police will issue citations carrying a $250 fine to those not masking after a warning.
“We prefer to warn people only, but we are at the point where we need to be more forceful with our message,” said Turner. “The wearing of masks works.”
He added that in lieu of the city’s annual Thanksgiving parade, there would be a food distribution event this Saturday at NRG Arena between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. or until supplies ran out.
Noting that Houston’s COVID-19 rates were lower than West Texas and many other areas of the country, Turner also discouraged travel over the holidays, especially to COVID-19 hotspots, and suggested families should avoid inviting guests from out of town to attend Thanksgiving meals.
“Don’t invite COVID to your Thanksgiving dinner.”
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo last week also cited rising numbers in the area and advocated for new lockdown orders, but lamented that she had been “stripped of the authority” to act and said she hoped that the federal government would intervene soon.
Hidalgo has maintained the county at the highest level of alert since June 27.
Last week an appeals court blocked El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego’s lockdown orders, and today Turner told reporters that Samaniego had decided to stand down and not appeal the ruling.
Dr. David Persse of Houston Health joined Turner at the conference and noted that the city was testing more residents and obtaining results more quickly, and even if cases surged to the highs seen last summer, there would be ample capacity. He lamented that the new surge was “all preventable,” and encouraged Houstonians to comply with holiday guidelines and mask mandates.
Persse said 40 percent of those contracting COVID-19 had no symptoms and may unknowingly spread the virus in the community.
Both the city and the county have launched controversial door-to-door survey programs in which health department employees request blood samples from residents to test for COVID-19 antibodies. The programs are voluntary, although earlier this year Turner said he strongly encouraged participation.
The county’s program launched last weekend and will continue through December 15. Only homes approached by the teams are eligible to participate.
Houston and Harris County’s holiday guidelines mirror those of other health departments around the state, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also posted updated guidelines stating that college students returning home for the holidays pose an increased risk.
Although the CDC guidelines stop short of recommending size limitations for holiday gatherings, the agency says attendees should remain six feet apart, wear masks, and wash hands in addition to following state and local rules.
The CDC also says that those traveling for overnight trips should avoid singing or shouting, especially indoors.
Regarding news of potential vaccines, Memorial Hermann Health System President and CEO Dr. David L. Callender said the reported effectiveness rates stemmed from only the first phase of trials, but that the results were hopeful. Callender added that multiple forms of the vaccines were under development, which may mitigate problems with virus mutations.
Last weekend Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci cautioned that even after taking a vaccine, Americans would need to continue to mask and practice social distancing.
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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.