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The Coronavirus In Greater Houston

As The Delta Variant Spreads, Houston’s Health Authority Sees A ‘Second Pandemic’ In The Region

Houston Health Authority David Persse spoke with Houston Public Media about what he’s seeing in the region amid the fourth wave of the pandemic.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Houston Health Authority David Persse at the unveiling of FEMA’s vaccine supersite at NRG Park on Feb. 22, 2021.

As COVID cases and hospitalizations continue to climb in the region, medical professionals are imploring people to wear a mask and get vaccinated.

A little more than 55% of Harris County residents are fully vaccinated, which is well shy of what experts would like to see.

Houston Health Authority David Persse told Houston Public Media that he’s looking at what’s happening now as a “second pandemic.”

“I would ask that we, as a community, get past the politics of this, and the ‘I have a right to say no,'” Persse said. “Yes, you absolutely have a right to say no. But right now, saying no isn't really the smartest decision for you and your family.”

Listen to some of the interview below, or read a transcript, edited for length and clarity.

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How should Houstonians be looking at the current state of the pandemic right now?

I look at it almost as if this is a second pandemic, and that's because the delta variant is behaving differently than the original. Obviously because it spreads so much more easily. And right now, the most worrisome thing is that the hospitals are absolutely totally full, and so if you've got COVID, we're gonna have a hard time getting you a spot, but if you've got anything else that requires a hospital bed.. There's not much locally. We've been flying people out of here as far as neighboring states. So, we're in rough shape right now.

I know the Houston Health Department reported a 320% increase of virus in the wastewater compared to the benchmark last year. Is that because there are more people infected, or is it because the Delta Variant just has more virus in it compared to previous strains?

The new number just came out for this week, and it's 407%. But you’re exactly right, we cannot say that there is four times as many people infected in the community, as back on July 6, 2020, which is our 100% benchmark value. Because people who are infected with the delta variant shed so much more virus that you cannot make that correlation. So the point to pay attention to with the wastewater, is that the number just keeps going up.

You talked about what's going on in the hospitals. We've heard about nursing shortages, with health care workers retiring. What can you tell me about paramedics? The people transporting these people to the hospital. Is there any kind of shortage there?

Well the Houston Fire Department has a chronic shortage of firefighters, and in particular paramedics. That is not necessarily worse today than it's normally been. We've not seen firefighters or paramedics retiring from the Houston Fire Department because of the impact of COVID. Now, they are exhausted. And they're disheartened, like a lot of the nurses are. We have a cure for this, and people won't get vaccinated, and the workload keeps getting worse and worse.

And you’ve got to remember, the doctors, the nurses, the paramedics, we are firsthand seeing people die from this. And that just has a huge emotional toll. And this time around, the average age of the people dying in the Texas Medical Center is 20 years younger than what it once was. With the first wave or second wave the average age was 70 years. Now we're down to 50 years old. It's a 20-year drop. And so, our health care workers are seeing this firsthand every day, and that does take an incredible toll on them.

AP Photo/David J. Phillip
A vaccination record card is shown during a COVID-19 vaccination drive for Spring Branch Independent School District education workers Tuesday, March 16, 2021. School employees who registered were given the Pfizer vaccine.

Based on the latest information, what can we say about how much deadlier this variant is compared to previous strains. I know that deaths are a very delayed statistic reported, but what can we say about this variant, in terms of the death rate?

There's a lot of debate across the nation and around the globe about that. There are some that are coming out and saying that it's more deadly than others. In our local data — which is miniscule compared to what's going on across the world — I'm not seeing that this particular variant is any more deadly. And that may be because the people that are getting infected are so much younger. So, there are those that think the virus one-on-one, compared to the alpha variant, is more deadly. However, that impact I think is blunted because the elderly, for the large part, are vaccinated. They're not getting sick with the delta variant. So I don't know if it's actually more deadly or not, but because it's younger people that are getting infected, and we're not seeing the increase in the death rate like we saw in previous waves. At least not yet.

As the school year arrives here, what do you want parents to know about how this current variant impacts kids compared to last years' strain?

The delta variant does not appear to make kids nearly as sick as adults. So that's a good thing. But the delta variant spreads so much more easily, and kids, their natural behavior is exactly what a virus wants. You can talk about social distancing in grade school all you want, but you get five or six kindergartners together for six hours, tell me someone’s' not going to hug somebody. Right? They're little kids, they're going to do what little kids do. The virus just capitalizes on that behavior, and so I think that we're going to have a lot more kids contract the virus.

Thank god the majority of them will do fine, but we're going to have some kids that are going to get sick and get in trouble. We just saw that LBJ Hospital had to Life Flight a kid. The hospital they went to was 150 miles away to find a bed to take care of that child. So, the sheer volume of people who are becoming infected is going to put a strain on the system. And then, of course, lets not forget those kids come home, and just like everything else, if they have a family member that's at risk, you've got an increased chance that the family member will contract the virus from the child.

Are there current and present dangers to the vaccinated population of Houston? Lets say I'm fully vaccinated, and I'm feeling very comfortable — this is alarming what's going on, but should I be concerned at all if I'm fully vaccinated?

You know, I had a really good conversation with a colleague and we were discussing how Moderna and Pfizer, they predict maybe about 90-95% effectiveness. There's been a lot of media attention on the few breakthrough cases, but what we're seeing locally is that the vaccine seems to be more like 99% effective. And that's because vaccinated people tend to hang out with vaccinated people. And so, the spread of the virus amongst people who are vaccinated is exponentially less than amongst those who are unvaccinated.

But if you're a vaccinated person, and you find yourself in an environment with a lot of unvaccinated people when there's a lot of virus around, that's where you're going to get your breakthrough cases. The vaccine is not 100% effective. And it really kind of goes to your underlying health situation. So a robust 20-year-old with the vaccine is probably not going to get it no matter what. But a 50-year-old who's vaccinated but has diabetes and is obese, there's a reasonable chance that they could contract the virus if they get exposed to enough of it.

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