To Stop COVID-19 Spread, Houston And Harris County Health Leaders Bank On The Public

City and county officials have set ambitious COVID-19 benchmarks the community is not close to hitting, but which health officials believe can be reached if the public takes the virus seriously.

A healthcare worker sits at the entrance to a free COVID-19 testing site at Minute Maid Park Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in Houston.

Back on July 5, Texas Medical Center member hospitals collaboratively reported their highest number of COVID-19 admissions in a single day: 446 people.

It was the end result of what local health officials had been seeing for weeks: About a month earlier, Dr. David Persse, local health authority for the Houston Health Department, warned about those growing numbers and feared it would only get worse.

"Are you looking at these (daily hospitalization) graphs?" Persse told Houston Public Media back on June 3. "We've got linear growth right now, it's pretty steady growth. But part of my job is to think worst case scenario. I wish these numbers were flatter than they are."

His fears were a reflection of the data at the time. In the last week of May, those hospitals reported just 44 new COVID-19 admissions. Seven days later, there were 88 new admissions. In just one week, daily COVID-19 admissions had doubled.

"If we don't have a second wave, I will be very happily surprised," Persse said.

But it did happen. There were 17 days in July that the Houston Health Department reported at least 800 new COVID-19 cases within city limits.

Now Houston is hoping to cut the rate of spread drastically by the end of August, and Harris County officials have put together an ambitious plan to reopen schools that would include seeing less than 400 cases per day, for a 14-day period across the region — benchmarks the community is not close to hitting, but which health officials believe can be reached if the public takes the virus seriously.

"I fully believe that we can get there the second or third week of September, or shortly thereafter," Persse said last week. "The challenge is going to be staying there and keeping those numbers down."

Mayor Sylvester Turner stands at a podium giving an update on the city’s coronavirus response on Thursday, My 7, while Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department, left, looks on.

Earlier this month, cases per day began to drop. The Houston Health Department reported less than 500 new positive cases again on Tuesday, which has now happened seven out of the last eight days. This deduction in cases has been good for Harris County hospitals, which have collectively reported less than 500 COVID patients in their ICUs for the last six days.

The fear now is that the public will get a false sense of security, change behavior and wipe away all that success, according to Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health..

"I want to catch myself saying the numbers in the hospitals are looking better,” Shah said. “Because the moment I say that, I feel the natural inclination is to say, ‘I don't have to wear my mask anymore.’"

The numbers are looking better not just in the hospitals, and in the total amount of cases reported per day. The percentage of people testing positive at the free testing sites is much lower than it once was, Shah said. The rate was about as above 20% recently, and has now dropped to about 15%.

The goal is 5%, a level other communities across the country and worldwide have achieved in order to safely open up schools.

One problem health department heads have pointed out is a significant decrease in the number of people going to get tested for COVID-19. The Houston Health Department said Monday that overall volume at their sites is one-third of what it once was. And the county is experiencing similar problems.

"Maybe people are confused in general," Shah said. “If I get tested once, that I'm somehow immune to the virus, or that the test is actually a treatment."

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, left, tours Harris County Public Health Department alongside local Health Authority Dr. Umair Shah, on Wednesday, May 13.

The drop in testing comes even though there has been no better time to get one, the health authorities said. Officials say it takes only a couple of days now to get results.

The Houston Health Department recommends getting tested at least every two weeks if you go out routinely, specifically if you can't work from home. The department reported last week that nearly 40% of the city's cases are asymptomatic.

"My prediction for the fall is either we're going to do really well, or really poorly," Persse said. "If we, as a community, do all the things to slow down the virus then not only will we be able to contain the COVID virus, but we should also have pretty good control over cold viruses and the influenza virus."

That's what makes this point in time so crucial to slowing down the virus in Houston, Persse said. With flu season and school openings rapidly approaching, health officials fear another surge at hospitals could be right around the corner.

"If we don't do a good job with this, then we're going to be in a situation where people could have any one of a variety of illnesses," Persse said. "We could have people with COVID, who are coughing, and say it's just a cold and therefore not take precautions as seriously as they need to. Then the COVID virus spreads even more than it is now. That's my concern."

For Persse and Shah, it's now about sustaining the recent success.

They say for Houston to be successful moving into the fall, there are four key factors: Stabilizing testing capacity, continuing to drive down the positivity rate and hospital numbers, giving as much help as possible to disproportionately impacted communities, and reemphasizing that there still is no vaccine. Wearing masks and staying socially distant are right now the only ways to drive down the community spread.

"Short term success is always an eye towards the future," Shah said "There are a lot of things in the road ahead that are very much like a marathon. A marathon does not imply that you run 26 miles at a time, you run it one mile at a time. These next several weeks are another important mile in this long term race that we're running in this pandemic."

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