Health & Science

COVID-19 numbers are declining across Greater Houston. But don’t let your guard down yet, the city’s health authority says

While the latest data is promising, it doesn’t mean Houston’s out of the woods, Houston Health Department Director David Persse told Houston Matters on Tuesday.

Houston Health Authority David Persse at the unveiling of FEMA's vaccine supersite at NRG Park on Feb. 22, 2021.
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Houston Health Authority David Persse at the unveiling of FEMA’s vaccine supersite at NRG Park on Feb. 22, 2021.

Key COVID-19 indicators are all on the decline in Greater Houston, suggesting the latest surge caused by the more transmissible omicron variant is on the downswing.

The latest data from the Texas Medical Center shows a 16.9% positivity rate last week, a drop from 21.3% the previous week and 28.1% in December.

Hospitalizations related to COVID-19 dropped to an average of 338 per day at Texas Medical Center hospitals last week – from the 400 daily admissions one week earlier.

The Houston Health Department is reporting that the viral load in the city's wastewater is now at 185%, a sharp decrease from 319% in early January.

But even with these declines, Houston Health Authority Dr. David Persse on Tuesday cautioned against overinterpreting the data. For example, the drop in wastewater viral load is still almost double what it was in July of 2020, during the peak of the first wave of COVID.

Harris County's positivity rate is at 26.7%, and the county is currently at its highest COVID-19 threat level, indicating significant and uncontrolled spread. Persse said it may take some time before that changes.

“The numbers are moving in the right direction, but it doesn’t surprise me, because the numbers have been so very high that we’re not at a point where the county is going to meet their threshold to go from red to orange,” he told Houston Matters host Craig Cohen. “But, you know, if things keep going this way, then it shouldn’t be too terribly long before they’re able to do that.”

Persse also pointed to what he said was a reliable pattern with COVID spikes and declines: two big waves per year with about three to four months in between, typically peaking in the summer and winter.

As the numbers continue to decline, he expected another wave to come later this year following that pattern.

"Hopefully it will be a much lower amplitude, right? That the peak won't be nearly as high," Persse said. "I think we have to expect that we'll see another peak probably in the summer."

Meanwhile, ICU beds in TMC hospitals were 97% full last week and 66 people died of COVID-19 in Harris County over the last seven days, according to county data.

Deaths and hospitalizations are considered a "lagging indicator" of COVID-19, meaning it generally takes one to two weeks to reflect any changes in case numbers.

“We're still seeing many people coming to our hospitals and getting very ill and dying,” Dr. Marc Boom, CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital, told NPR's Morning Edition on Monday. "They're really in two groups: they're either unvaccinated individuals, or they're particularly elderly or very immunocompromised."

As of Tuesday, Harris County had a 61% vaccination rate, according to county health data. That's up only slightly from 59% near the end of December.

The rapid spread of omicron itself may have played a role in the drop in numbers, said Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine: some research suggests an infection after vaccination provides a greater layer of protection against another COVID infection.

“For the omicron variant, it appears that the people who had these infections are doing slightly better than those who are solely vaccinated,” McDeavitt said.