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How effective are COVID-19 threat level charts in other cities and states?

HOUSTON – “We may be approaching the precipice, the precipice of disaster.”

Those were the ominous words Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo used Thursday while unveiled a new COVID-19 threat level system. The new system was laid out amid a spike in new cases and hospitalizations and growing concerns about the spread of the virus in the Houston area. At present, the county is at the second-highest risk level — orange. But Hidalgo warned if current trends continue, she may elevate the threat level to red, which means a recommendation that everyone stay home.

Effectiveness of threat levels

Color-coded alert systems are nothing new. The most famous one is the Terrorism Alert Level chart that was introduced in 2002, a few months after the September 11 attacks. But it was scrapped in 2011 after it was deemed oversimplified, underexplained and unhelpful. While such systems have been effective in describing the current state of a situation, it’s unclear if they’ve been effective in getting results.

Dallas County introduced it’s system a month ago and it also uses four colors. Right now, that county’s threat level is red due its current COVID-19 situation. Dallas County has about half as many people as Harris County, but it has more total deaths and a higher percentage of positive cases.

The city of Austin also launched a color-coded system last month, but with five levels, explaining who is at risk and what actions would be necessary at each stage. Like Houston and Dallas, Austin has seen a recent surge in hospitalizations that is concerning local health officials.

The state of Utah has been using a colored COVID-19 system since April, but individual counties can be at different levels.

“We’ve been willing to realize the document we put out is not perfect,” said Tom Hudachko with the Utah Department of Health. “[We] have communicated to the public that it’s a living document and there will be changes to it so that’s been important for us that we’re able to change as we go.”

Harris County’s system

Hidalgo admitted she can’t order people to stay home since Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders supersede hers. But she hopes it will help educate people on the current situation and the behaviors necessary to keep it from going into a full-blown crisis. She’s hoping Harris County’s system will yield better results than other models.

“We’ve watched where this hasn’t worked and we’ve adjusted accordingly,” she said.

Hidalgo said she assesses the threat level every day.

“We will always err on the side of action, the side of information, and the side of transparency,” she said. “Our job is to tell people the truth.”