Health & Science

Harris County Raises COVID-19 Threat Level Amid Latest Surge In Hospitalizations

The threat level — currently at “yellow,” or moderate — will rise to “orange,” indicating significant and uncontrolled spread of the virus. It’s the first time the county has reached that level since late May.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo updates the public on the county’s COVID-19 threat level on July 22, 2021. Hidalgo raised the threat level from “yellow” to “orange,” indicating uncontrolled spread of the virus.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday raised the county’s COVID-19 threat level amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations fueled by the spread of the delta variant and a slowdown in vaccinations.

The threat level — currently at "yellow," or moderate — will rise to "orange," indicating significant and uncontrolled spread of the virus. It’s the first time the county has reached that level since late May.

"Basically what we have is the deadly tension between the spread of the variant and the vaccination rate,” Hidalgo said.

The news comes as local hospitals continue to take in more COVID-19 patients per day. The countywide COVID-19 positivity rate is 7.3%, up from 5.29% on July 1. And as of Wednesday, 599 people in Harris County general hospital beds were infected with the virus — up from 358 at the beginning of July, according to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council. Intensive care unit occupancy was at 185 as of Wednesday, up from 102 on July 1.

The positivity rate in Harris County is doubling every 2.3 weeks, faster than every point during a previous surge that peaked in January, Hidalgo said. ICU occupancy is doubling every 4.8 weeks.

Almost all of those cases are among unvaccinated patients. Just 53.5% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated in Harris County, according to county health data.

Hidalgo blamed the low vaccination rate on what she called “a pandemic of misinformation” spreading on social media. Despite ample evidence of the vaccines’ safety and efficacy, rumors on social media have spread false information about supposed deaths due to vaccines. Some of that misinformation paints young people as less likely to contract the virus.

In fact, more than 47% of positve COVID-19 cases in Harris County last week were among people younger than 30. People under 30 make up about 44% of the Harris County population.

Even as the threat level rises, it’s unlikely Hidalgo can put in place policies to address the new surge, as Gov. Greg Abbott has prevented localities from enacting their own prevention measures such as mask mandates. But Hidalgo nonethless asked even vaccinated people to wear face coverings in order to normalize mask wearing among the antire public.

"I know they're inconvenient,” Hidalgo said. “I don't like wearing masks either, but until we get the numbers back down, let's all wear our masks again.”

Abbott has also stressed he will not impose a new statewide mask mandate, despite a rise in the state’s positivity rate to above 10% for the first time since February.

Out of nearly 9,000 deaths in Texas since February, all but 43 were unvaccinated people, according to the Texas Tribune.

Hidalgo was joined Thursday by Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease expert from Baylor College of Medicine, who warned that the more contagious delta variant of the virus is now the dominant strain, and is making its way across the country.

The variant is twice as contagious as the original virus, Hotez said — making it more likely that unvaccinated people will increasingly get sick in the coming weeks.

"Anyone who's unvaccinated and has been lucky enough to escape COVID, your luck is about to run out,” Hotez said.

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Paul DeBenedetto

Paul DeBenedetto

Senior Producer

Paul DeBenedetto is Houston Public Media's senior web producer, writing and editing stories for HoustonPublicMedia.org. Before joining the station, Paul worked as a web producer for the Houston Chronicle, and his work has appeared online and in print for the Chronicle, the New York Times, DNAinfo New York, and other...

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