If Harris County continues same coronavirus track, Houston could be worst affected city in US, expert says

HOUSTON – If Harris County continues on the same new case trajectory as it is on at present, Houston could become the worst affected city in the U.S., according to nationally recognized infectious disease expert, Dr. Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine.

In a tweet Saturday morning, Hotez said if things continue as they are, Harris County could rival the situation that is currently being seen in Brazil.

“If we continue on the same trajectory, my worry is Houston could become the worst affected city right now in North America,” Hotez said in an interview with KPRC 2.

He also said while issuing a mask order is a “good 1st step,” he believes it “simply won’t be enough.” Friday, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo signed an executive order mandating that businesses that offer goods and services were required to ensure that all employees and customers wear masks in their business. The order, that goes into effect Monday, will continue for 8 days until June 30 when the Texas disaster declaration ends.

Finally, his third prediction in his tweet was that the county “would need to proceed to red alert.” As of Sunday night, Harris County is listed at Orange Level 2 on the COVID-19 Threat Level System. This means there is a significant and uncontrolled spread of the virus in the county. To be upgraded to the Red Level 1 the spread of the virus would have to be classified as severe and uncontrolled.

Hotez also shared a graph titled “Seven-day rolling average of new cases for each county in the Houston region.” In the graph, a blue line shows the number of cases in Harris County that shows a stark climb in cases from April 26 through June 21. Other counties represented on the graph include Fort Bend, Montgomery, Galveston, Brazoria, Liberty, Chambers and Waller counties.

In a follow up tweet, Hotez said he couldn’t see how things could “get better on their own.”

“In such case we must take steps to protect Houston — even if it means defying the ‘health freedom’ antiscience crazies. I’m willing to take the heat — they don’t care for me much anyway from my staunch defense of #vaccines.”

More Doctors Sounding the Alarm

Dr. Hotez is far from the only doctor raising this concern. President and CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital, Dr. Marc Boom sent an email to his staff warning, “Our region is facing a real crisis. We appear to be nearing the tipping point and we must do everything necessary to ensure that our community doesn’t fall prey to this virus.”

Boom urged his staff to ring the “warning bell” louder in the community.

“We have to accept the fact that if we don’t behave differently this will take control of our lives again,” Boom told KPRC. “We’re already 50-percent higher than we ever were at peak back in April and we don’t see an end in sight.”

Data compiled by the Texas Medical Center shows if the current growth rate of new cases and hospitalizations doesn’t slow then ICU base capacity could be maxed out in two to three weeks. This would trigger emergency plans hospitals have in place to change regular hospital beds into ICU beds to accommodate the surge.

“People, I think when the sun came out, felt like it was over,” said Dr. Brian Reed, chair of the clinical sciences department at the University of Houston’s College of Medicine. “If we do want to go back to some sort of normalcy and avoiding any sort of shut down, then we have to adjust to being further apart then usual, wearing masks and continuing to wash our hands as frequently as possible.”

Reed said hospitals aren’t the only places seeing increases. In addition to teaching, Reed does rounds at the Lone Star Circle of Care clinic on the UH campus.

“We didn’t have any positive tests for several weeks and now we’re having whole families coming in. One person will get it, maybe at their job, and bring it home,” said Reed.

Current situation in Harris County

Houston and Harris County saw a steady increase in cases and hospitalizations last week and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called the county the “epicenter” of the virus in Texas.

In a Friday press conference, Houston Health Authority Dr. David Persse said that Houston and Harris County was not experiencing a second wave of the virus.

“People talk about this like a second wave. I say this isn’t a second wave. We didn’t have a first wave. It was a ripple,” Persse said.

As of Sunday evening, Houston and Harris County had:

  • 21,053 coronavirus cases in total
  • 12,508 were active cases
  • 325 deaths
  • 8,148 recoveries

On Friday, Houston reported 972 new cases, however, Mayor Sylvester Turner said this was due to a 2-week backlog in test result reporting by the state. Hotez told KPRC 2 Sunday that when he makes his projections and recommendations, he looks at a 7-day average in cases.

Hospital capacity

One set of data that is used to determine the severity of coronavirus in the area is hospital capacity and general and ICU bed usage. The South East Texas Regional Advisory Council (SETRAC) tracks that information for the Houston area.

As of Saturday, Houston area hospital capacity was:

  • 10.3% of general beds in Harris County hospitals were filled by COVID-19 patients
  • 22.8% of ICU beds in Harris County hospitals were filled by COVID-19 patients

You can see more data from SETRAC and use their interactive dashboard here.

Texas Medical Center occupancy rates
Texas Medical Center occupancy rates (Texas Medical Center)
Texas Medical Center occupancy rates
Texas Medical Center occupancy rates (Texas Medical Center)

You can see coronavirus data from the Harris County Health Department in the interactive dashboard below:

Current situation in Texas

As of Sunday, there were more than 3,800 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Texas and 17 more deaths.

Health officials reported 68,499 people have recovered from the virus and that there are 40,920 active cases with 3,409 people hospitalized.

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott attributed the rise in Texas cases to more people getting tested. He will hold a press conference at 2 p.m. Monday to address the coronavirus response in Texas.