Coronavirus

Coronavirus In Greater Houston: ‘Time To Be Very, Very Serious’ About COVID-19 Ahead Of Holidays, Mayor Turner Says

As Thanksgiving approaches, COVID-19 cases continue to rise across Texas — and health officials are worried holiday travel will lead to a coronavirus surge.

Mayor Sylvester Turner at a turkey giveaway sponsored by rapper Travis Scott’s Cactus Jack Foundation, on Nov. 25, 2020. Turner said the city would enforce regulations for bars and restaurants,

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Updated 2:34 p.m. CT Wednesday

While the city of Houston will enforce COVID-19 regulations for bars and restaurants over the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Wednesday afternoon that the city does not have the resources to regulate every infraction.

Bars in Houston are mandated to stay closed, but many have found a loophole by reclassifying as restaurants, making it important to practice personal responsibility, Turner said.

"It is time to be very, very serious," he said.

The mayor reported 1,288 new cases and two new deaths at the Wednesday afternoon press conference. There are currently more than 185,000 confirmed cases and more than 2,400 deaths in Harris County, according to Harris County Public Health.

Turner’s remars came during rapper Travis Scott's Cactus Jack Foundation turkey drive, in which turkeys and supplies were donated to families in need. In addition to the turkeys, free COVID-19 testing was also available at the site.

Turner stressed the importance of taking the virus seriously, urging the public to act in their best interest as the wait for a vaccine continues.

He added that too many people in Houston have been frequenting bars and restaurants, despite warnings from public health officials.

"I don't know what it's going to take to get people to understand," Turner said.

Updated 12:36 p.m. CT Wednesday

United Airlines is mandating self-collected, mail-in COVID-19 tests for passengers who are traveling from George Bush International Airport to 10 international destinations starting Dec. 7.

The international destinations include Aruba, Belize, Guatemala, Peru, Bahamas, Panama, Honduras and El Salvador, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The tests will cost $119 and must be taken 72 hours before departure. Results will be available within two days of mailing in the test.

Updated 4:56 p.m. CT Tuesday

COVID-19 patients are taking up more than 20% of ICU beds in Harris County hospitals — a number that has grown dramatically in the last few days.

Harris County hospitals collectively reported 198 coronavirus patients in their ICUs on Saturday. On Tuesday, they reported 330.

Texas Medical Center member hospitals are reporting 92% of their ICU beds filled, 19% taken by COVID-19 patients.

Health officials look at hospital ICU numbers as a key metric in determining the virus’ impact on the health care system. If too many are in use, surge plans become activated, meaning patient volume exceeds the hospital’s base capacity, stretching resources.

A new $5 million emergency loan program will help six health centers in the Houston area survive the financial impact of the pandemic.

The Episcopoal Health Foundation and the Austin Community Foundation announced Tuesday they would provide low-interest loans of up to $1 million each to clinics like Legacy Community Health, Lone Star Circle of Care and Access Health. Combined, the clinics in the loan program treat more than 280,000 patients each year.

Some Texas safety net clinics that provide health services to low-income patients are struggling to survive the pandemic. Temporary closures and a growing number of uninsured patients have caused many community clinics to experience big revenue losses. On top of that, they're also dealing with new costs for PPE, COVID-19 testing and technology for telemedicine programs.

This has put many safety net clinics in a bind, causing some to cut dental and vision services, or furlough employees.

Updated 7:13 p.m. CT Monday

A health care worker processes people waiting in line at a United Memorial Medical Center COVID-19 testing site Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, in Houston. Texas is rushing thousands of additional medical staff to overworked hospitals as the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients increases.

The percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 in Greater Houston jumped from 7.9% to 8.8% over the course of one week, Houston officials said Monday.

Hospitalizations continue to rise as well, which is causing concern at the Houston Health Department.

"The numbers are not where we were a while back, but the movement is in the same wrong direction," said Dr. David Persse, Houston's top health authority.

The number of people getting tested for COVID-19 is up a little bit over 60% just in the last few weeks, which Persse said gives more accurate information on how fast the virus is spreading, and how it will impact the hospitals.

Across Harris County, 10.4% of hospital beds are currently occupied with coronavirus patients diagnosed with COVID disease.

"That's a threshold we hoped we would not meet," Persse said.

Harris County hospitals reported 259 COVID-19 ICU patients Monday. It's the first time that number surpassed 250 patients since Sept. 4.

COVID – 19 patients are now taking up 17.6% of the total amount of ICU beds currently in use in Harris County.

But health officials are also hopeful with a vaccine on the horizon, possibly as soon as next month.

On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott released his COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan. The state will distribute available vaccines to front line workers who are at greater risk of contracting the virus due to the nature of their work, vulnerable populations who are at greater risk of severe disease and death, and health care workers.

Persse said he's he's hopeful that general distribution will begin by April. But that will depend on how fast the first round of vaccines is manufactured, and how many people qualified for the initial round of vaccines actually get them.

Updated 2:46 p.m. CT Monday

COVID-19 is causing hospital nurses to fall more vulnerable to PTSD and burnout, according to the group Houston Nurses Together. They say that’s because nurses are expected to provide more emotional support for patients who are dying or critically ill with COVID-19, since family members are often barred from visiting.

Joanna Lunin, a mental health professional at Alethia Counseling Center and former nurse, says the pandemic has brought compounding stressors to the job.

“Patients are sick, we’re still figuring out the best way to treat them,” she said. “And workers and supplies are short. And as if that wasn’t enough, our stress is being compounded by a political environment where we have to try and convince the pandemic is real.”

Lunin says warning signs can come up as intrusive thoughts, feelings of depression, irritability and anger or having trouble sleeping or concentrating.

Updated 10:46 a.m. Monday

Local health officials are warning Houstonians to stay home and limit in-person gatherings ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, fearing another COVID-19 surge as people across the country look to holiday travel plans.

In a statement, Mayor Sylvester Turner urged caution ahead of the holiday season, and to cancel plans that involving travel by instead focusing on things like video calls to interact with loved ones to avoid the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

"This virus thrives on gatherings and will take advantage of holiday festivities to sicken our loved ones and further spread in our community,” Turner said. “Although the holidays will look and feel different this year, making smart choices could save the lives of the people you love."

The Houston Health Department also encouraged anyone attending a holiday gathering with people who don't live in their home to avoid non-household members for 14 days before and after. Shoppers were told to avoid things like in-person Black Friday sales, and to forgo crowded stores in favor of online shopping, curbside pick-up or home delivery.

The testing positivity rate in Houston hospitals reached 5.9% over the weekend, and the reproduction rate of the virus remains above thresholds that would indicate control of COVID-19 spread, according to the Texas Medical Center. As of Monday, Harris County Public Health reported more than 17,000 active cases in the county, and more than 182,000 confirmed cases since the pandemic hit the region in March. Nearly 2,400 people in Harris County have died from COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the city of Arlington is using one family's brush with the coronavirus as a warning to others who might be considering big get-togethers this Thanksgiving.

Alexa Aragonez told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that her family weighed the risks of catching the virus but decided to get together for a birthday party on Nov. 1.

A couple of days after the party, her 57-year-old mother, Enriqueta Aragonez, and others who were at the party began to feel sick. They got tested, and all 12 who had attended were positive for COVID-19. Arlington is using the family's experience as part of a public awareness campaign to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus this holiday season by staying home.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press.

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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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