Coronavirus

Holiday Season A Critical Time To Stop COVID-19 Spread, Houston Hospital Executives Say

The Houston Health Department reported a positivity rate of 7.9% on Monday at their COVID-19  testing sites. Harris County officials said Tuesday their number is 8.2%, which is lower than what some hospitals’ emergency rooms are seeing right now.

A drone shot of the Texas Medical Center, on Aug. 28, 2020.

Texas Medical Center executives say the next six weeks are going to be critical in Houston's fight to control COVID-19, as key statistical indicators show the virus spreading faster over the last month.

The primary sign of that is what's known as the "reproduction rate," a number public health professionals say should be below 1.0. As of Tuesday, it was at 1.1.

"It's only in the last few weeks that we've moved above 1.0," says Bill McKeon, CEO, Texas Medical Center. "It shows that the spread is beginning to happen."

Harris County and Houston officials held press conferences again earlier this week, highlighting the importance of wearing a mask, staying socially distant and getting tested as the holidays approach, as the shifting reproduction rate leads to more cases.

The Houston Health Department reported a positivity rate of 7.9% on Monday at their COVID-19 testing sites. Harris County officials said Tuesday their number is 8.2%, which is lower than what some hospitals’ emergency rooms are seeing right now.

On a seven-day rolling average, it's as high as 11.6% at Houston Methodist Hospitals, said Methodist CEO Dr. Marc Boom.

"Just a week ago it was 10.5%, and two weeks ago it was 7%.” Boom said. “So we've jumped up a lot, numbers we had not seen since the end of July, early August."

Overall, Texas Medical Center hospitals are seeing a 67% increase in the volume of cases over the last month. That’s translated into a 43% increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations over that same time period.

"We are experiencing a significant uptick," Boom said. "Eight days ago, we crossed the 200 patient threshold again for the first time since August. We crossed the 300 patient threshold today. So in eight days, we went from 200 to 307 (patients), over a 50% increase. That's a number we've not seen since July 24th."

COVID-19 hospitalizations have been referred to as a "lagging indicator" of a problem. Boom said at the worst point in July, roughly 800 of the 2,300 patients Houston Methodist could care for were COVID-19 patients.

The growing number of hotspots around the country is also adding to the worry.

"In June and July we were pulling in traveling nurses to supplement,” Boom said. “That's gonna be more difficult this time around, there are surges everywhere."

Hospital executives say that, for now, the reproduction rate, positivity rate, and COVID-19 hospitalizations are not growing at the rate they saw over the summer. But the numbers are alarming, they’re quick to add.

Dr. James McDeavitt from Baylor College of Medicine said he believed Houston was reaching “the beginning of the end ofthe pandemic.” But, he stressed, it was still the “beginning” of the end — and without staying vigilant, numbers could again get out of control for health officials.

"There's an old saying that we hope for the best and we plan for the worst,” McDeavitt said. “For the next six weeks, I'm gonna revise that. If all we do is hope, we're going to get the worst.”

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