In-Depth

Judge Hidalgo: COVID-19 Is Hindering Census Count

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo says an accurate census count is critical to getting the federal services the county will need to recover.

Lina Hidalgo updates the public on Harris County’s response to the coronavirus in a recent press conference.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has been pushing hard to make sure there's an accurate census count, so that the county gets its fair share of federal funding.

But the coronavirus has thrown a wrench into the works. Houston Public Media’s Andrew Schneider spoke with the judge about how the census has collided with the coronavirus.

Schneider: How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the census count in Harris County?

Hidalgo: We had an army of canvassers that were supposed to go and knock on people's doors and ensure that they were responding to the census, and they got through about 50,000 doors before COVID happened and they could no longer do that...All those canvassers have turned into phone bankers.

Filling out the census is what's going to help the long-term health and safety of the community. Those are the dollars that will go to healthcare, to determine how much rental assistance we receive, food support, all kinds of things we need to recover.

I'm hopeful that we'll be able to step up. Right now, I think we are just a little bit behind. Harris County, so far, the response rate is just about a percentage point below Texas, and we're about four percentage points behind what the national response rate is...We've known that we had a bigger challenge, because we have a high percentage of ‘hard-to-count communities.' So, we have a lot of renters, a lot of folks [have] English as a second language, a lot of young people...Even with coronavirus, we're already doing better than we were doing at this point in 2010 [during the last census count].

Schneider: Let me ask you about the pandemic. You just extended the “stay at home” order until April 30. How will we know when it's safe to start lifting the order, and what will that look like?

Hidalgo: We're looking at the best data that we can get our hands on. Really the most accurate information, because of the lack of widespread testing, comes from the hospitals. And so they're still seeing their rates of COVID patients go up exponentially...So, we know right now we are very much tracking the path that Italy or New York were on. We're on the early stages of that, and so we're on tap to blunt that rapid rise to the curve. We'll continue tracking, and if we see good news before April 30, we'll make adjustments. It's not likely. All the models show a peak in late April if we continue doing our part with the ‘Stay Home, Work Safe' order. If we don't, then it's going to peak much later, and this is going to take longer.

The other thing to note, of course, is we can't lift this order all at once. And so, even fast forward to end of April, we all do our part, we manage to blunt this, and the best of news...we would have to lift the order little by little. We stair stepped to get there, and we've got to stair step it back, because if we just completely lift it all at once, the virus just comes back, and we lose all the gains we've made.

Schneider: What's being done to increase testing capacity and hospital capacity?

Hidalgo: We're at the mercy of federal government supplies to be able to do truly significant amounts of testing. We're continuing to scour the nation and the globe for more testing supplies, but the tool we have that is foolproof, that doesn't depend on scarce supplies and resources, that we know is effective, is staying home and social distancing.

Now, in terms of the hospital capacity, the hospitals are all working on their surge plans and making sure that they have...maximized their space as much as possible. But that's still not enough if we're to find ourselves in a situation of really a high and drastic growth in cases. That's why we're looking at even additional space. The county's looking at NRG Complex and what we can set up there. The challenge once again becomes simply raw materials. Are there enough ventilators? That's the kind of thing, and so we're again trying to just scour the globe for these kinds of materials we would need.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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