Coronavirus In Greater Houston: Texas Hospitalizations Are Reaching July COVID-19 Peaks

Health experts are worried about a possible spike in COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving holiday travel.

The Texas Medical Association said all schools should be administering rapid COVID-19 tests.

This story is part of Houston Public Media’s ongoing coronavirus coverage. Click here to see more of our coronavirus news and resources.

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Correction: A version of this story previously mischaracterized the city’s COVID-19 numbers. On Monday, Dr. David Persse said the asymptomatic rate of infection — the percentage of people infected who show no symptoms — could be as high as 55%.

Updated 12:49 p.m. CT Friday

Hospitalizations in Texas are reaching levels previously seen during the worst of the pandemic in July, as the spread of COVID-19 continues to worsen across the state. The number of Texans hospitalized with COVID-19 and the seven-day average of new cases have nearly tripled since the beginning of October, according to the Texas Tribune. And the White House Coronavirus Task Force has warned that this increase is "unsustainable."

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Thursday continued to encourage folks who traveled during Thanksgiving, or were around people who did travel to get tested.

He also said the impacts of people gathering together on Thanksgiving would not have been felt yet on the hospitals. Turner expects the surge to occur next week, if there was any impact over the holiday.

In Houston, key metrics — including hospitalizations, rate of spread, number of cases and positivity rate — have risen over the past week, the Texas Medical Center reports.

Texas Medical Center data cited 2,132 new positive COVID-19 cases on Thursday in Greater Houston. In the last week of November, the daily average was 1,136. For the entire month of November, the daily average was 643 new cases a day.

The Houston Health Department, meanwhile. reported 1,137 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, at testing sites just within city limits. Of those cases, 97% were from specimens received within the the last 14 days.

Harris County Public Health, reported a seven-day average positivety rate off 8.8% at COVID-19 testing sites in Greater Houston Thursday.

Harris County Hospitals collectively reported 380 COVID-19 patients needing intensive care on Thursday. That's 24.4% of ICU beds in the county. Aug. 21 was the last time more than 370 ICU beds were occupied by coronavirus patients.

Texas Medical Center Hospitals are still collectively operating in phase one of their intensive care capacity.

Updated 3:09 p.m. CT Tuesday

The Texas Medical Association on Tuesday recommended that schools give students and staff rapid antigen tests to help monitor the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.

The group said schools should develop a screening program that implements rapid antigen testing, which should be paired with mask-wearing and social distancing, and repeated as the spread continues.

Although research shows COVID-19 appears to be less severe among children, they can still get sick and spread the virus to their parents, family members, teachers, and other school staff.

For schools and districts in which widespread testing is not financially feasible, the TMA recommend testing a representative sample of the on-campus population.

The emphasis on rapid testing is meant to help screen students or adults who test positive, so that they can be isolated quickly and help reduce outbreaks and create a safer environment, the medical group said.

Rapid antigen tests are different from PCR tests and antibody tests. They detect active infection, which means that a positive result indicates that the patient has COVID-19. But rapid antigen tests are also more likely to miss an infection than a PCR test, meaning if results are negative, that doesn’t necessarily mean the patient is free of the virus. The TMA said the main goal is screening, and those who are positive or symptomatic should be sent to a physician who would diagnose the cause of the symptoms.

"Because of the level of false negatives and the occasional false positives, we need to be aware that this kind of screening program is not a panacea and does not replace diagnostic testing which is used by physicians to confirm the cause of symptoms," read a statement from Dr. Charles Lerner, a member of the TMA’s COVID-19 task force. "But a comprehensive school infection plan represents a very small step forward in getting children back to school."

Updated 5:12 p.m. CT Monday

The city of Houston will begin cracking down on businesses that have not adhered to COVID-19 regulations, wih Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday afternoon warning that the next step could be an imposed citywide curfew.

While many bars have remained open by transitioning into restaurants, others are simply disregarding occupancy guidelines, Turner said. If that continues, the mayor said he would turn to a curfew as a last resort.

"I am watching the numbers carefully," Turner said. "A lot of what we decide to do going forward will depend on people's behavior, the extent of the community spread, and the status of our health care delivery system."

The Houston Fire Department has responded to nearly 20,000 occupancy complaints since March 18, according to Fire Chief Samuel Peña.

"We want to help these businesses keep the lights on," he said. "We want to help them have a safe space for their employees and for their customers. But we do need their assistance."

Police Chief Art Acevedo urged the public to report establishments avoiding COVID-19 regulations.

"I have directed our vice division to start making visits," Acevado said. "At the end of the day, what we want to do is save lives."

The city health department reported 685 new COVID-19 cases Monday, but no new deaths. November was the second busiest month for COVID-19 testing, with more than 90,877 people tested between Nov. 1 through the 28th. As more tests have been performed, Houston health authority Dr. David Persse said that’s led to a better understanding of the city’s asymptomatic infection rate — the percentage of people infected who show no symptoms — which may now be as high as 55%. Health officials have generally estimated a 40% asymptomatic infection rate.

But Persse added that the total positivity rate in the city dropped slightly, to 8.4%.

"Some folks are paying enough attention that we've seen a little bit of a fluctuation in the data," he said.

Updated 1:34 p.m. CT Monday

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File
In this Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020 file photo, travelers walk through Terminal 3 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. The Transportation Security Administration said nearly 1.2 million people went through U.S. airports on Sunday, the highest number since the coronavirus pandemic gripped the country back in March, despite the pleadings of public health experts for people to stay home over Thanksgiving.

Harris County health officials on Monday asked people to wait five days after the Thanksgiving holiday to get tested for COVID-19, to reduce the likelihood of a false negative.

Immediately after the initial infection, there might not be enough virus in the body for tests to detect, according to Harris County Public Health.

The agency suggested tests even for those feeling healthy, as 40% of people with the infection do not show symptoms.

The Transportation Security Administration confirmed that nearly 1.2 million people went through U.S. airports on Sunday, according to the Associated Press. That’s the highest number since the coronavirus pandemic gripped the country back in March.

The uptick came despite the pleadings of public health experts across the country for people to stay home over Thanksgiving to limit further spreading the virus. That includes health officials across Houston.

The TSA screened at least 1 million people on four of the last 10 days through Sunday. But that’s still far lower than normal. Last year, airport crowds often topped 2 million people per day over the Thanksgiving period, the AP reports.

The news comes as Texas begins to ramp up for COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Memorial Hermann, MD Anderson Cancer Center and Houston Methodist hospitals are likely to be the first to receive doses of a vaccine for their employees, local health officials confirmed Monday.

Biotech company Moderna has now joined Pfizer in requesting emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for its vaccine. If approved, hospital and EMS workers treating COVID-19 patients would top the list.

Later, vaccines will become available at the usual sites of vaccination, like doctors offices and clinics.

Last week, Houston's health authority, Dr. David Persse, said it's possible the general population could have access to the vaccine by April.

Sara Willa Ernst is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Sara’s work at Houston Public Media is made possible with support from KERA in Dallas.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press

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