Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo raised the county’s COVID-19 threat level last week amidst a recent rise in cases and hospitalizations in the Houston region, urging residents to minimize all contacts with others unless they are fully vaccinated.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also released updated guidance Tuesday based on the proliferation of the highly contagious Delta variant. The CDC recommended that even people who have been fully vaccinated should wear masks in indoor public places in locales with a “substantial or high level of transmission,” which includes the Houston area and much of Texas, according to the CDC.
While data from the Houston Health Department and Harris County Public Health show a marked increase in COVID-19 cases since the beginning of July, as of Tuesday the number of active cases in the six zip codes served by The Leader was relatively low compared to some other parts of the county. There were a total of 279 active cases in the 77007, 77008, 77009, 77018, 77091 and 77092 zip codes, while there were 337 cases in the 77433 zip code, which includes the Cypress and Katy areas in the northwestern part of the county.
Dr. Peter J. Hotez, an infectious disease expert with the Baylor College of Medicine who joined Hidalgo at her July 22 news conference about raising the county’s threat level from yellow to orange, the second-highest level, said the uptick in cases has been caused by the Delta variant.
“We are dealing with this Delta variant that’s twice as contagious as the original COVID-19 virus,” Hotez said. “And that’s why we’re seeing this very aggressive spread in areas where vaccination rates are low.”
More than 54 percent of Harris County residents who are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, which is those age 12 and older, have been fully vaccinated, according to county data. Hidalgo and Hotez said they encourage more Houston-area residents to receive the vaccine in an attempt to protect themselves and the community at large, with Hotez saying more than 95 percent of the COVID patients in the Texas Medical Center are unvaccinated.
According to the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council, which monitors medical trends in the Houston region, the number of COVID-related hospitalizations in Harris County had risen from 358 on July 1 to 907 on Tuesday.
Hidalgo, while raising the county’s COVID-19 threat level to indicate there is significant and uncontrolled spread of the virus, said unvaccinated people should wear masks around others. She also encouraged vaccinated residents to wear masks when in public.
But Hidalgo has no authority to require citizens to wear masks, having been stripped of that power by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. He lifted the statewide mask mandate in March, when the number of statewide cases and hospitalizations were in the midst of a steady decline, and in May he issued an executive order saying no government official or entity could require a person to wear a mask – except in government-run medical and correctional facilities. The same order applies to public schools.
“I’m very concerned about school starting up (in August) without masks,” Hidalgo said.
The CDC recently released updated guidance for schools, saying it recommends “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.”
But Abbott indicated Tuesday on Twitter that he would not reverse course on his order regarding masks.
Houston ISD, the largest school district in Texas that includes several campuses in the area, has said it will comply with state laws and plans to hold classes entirely in-person during the 2021-22 school year.
“The time for government mask mandates is over – now is the time for personal responsibility,” Abbott tweeted Tuesday. “In May, I signed an executive order prohibiting mask mandates by (government) entities. Every Texan has the right to choose whether they will wear a mask or have their children wear masks.”
For up-to-date information about how to get vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 through the Houston Health Department, visit houstonemergency.org/covid19 or call 832-393-4220.