HOUSTON – During a media briefing Thursday, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced she was increasing the county’s COVID-19 Threat Level Indicator from Level 3: Yellow, the system’s second-lowest threat level, to Level 2: Orange, the system’s second-highest threat level due to a rise in COVID-19 cases.
Threat level 2 indicates a significant and “uncontrolled level” of COVID-19 in Harris County, meaning that there is ongoing transmission of the virus, according to the county’s COVID-19 data hub.
At this level, county officials, urge unvaccinated residents to minimize contact with others, avoid any medium or large gatherings, and visit only permissible businesses that follow public health guidance.
Hidalgo blamed the delta variant and flattening vaccination rates for the increase in infections.
Over the past few weeks the region has been hit hard by the arrival of the Delta variant, Hidalgo said during the briefing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday that the Delta variant accounts for an estimated 83 percent of new coronavirus cases in the United States. As for the region Texas is a part of, as of July 17, the variant comprises 84 percent of new coronavirus cases, Hidalgo noted.
Hidalgo also noted that the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate is doubling every 2.3 weeks, faster than at any point during the third wave of the disease in December.
“Its not too late,” Hidalgo said. “But if we don’t act now, it will be too late for many people.”
Hidalgo also said “everybody” should resume wearing masks to protect those that aren’t vaccinated. Currently, around 2.1 million Harris County residents, 44.1 percent of Harris County’s total population, are fully vaccinated, according to the county’s COVID-19 data hub.
“I know they’re uncomfortable,” Hidalgo said. “I don’t like wearing masks either but until we get the numbers back down, let’s all wear masks again.”
Hidalgo urged eligible county residents to get vaccinated.
“We’re now seeing two Harris Counties, " Hidalgo said during the briefing, “One Harris County that’s fully vaccinated, protected, doing its part to get our economy running and doing its part to protect those who cannot get vaccinated. Unfortunately, we’re also seeing another Harris County that’s hesitant to take action. It’s okay to be a victim of this virus, but it’s not okay to be an enabler.”
Worried misinformation may keep eligible residents from seeking out the vaccine, Hidlago said “unchecked Facebook posts should not drive public health decisions.”
“It’s natural to have questions.” Hidalgo said. “It’s okay to be hesitant at first but there’s no shortage of credible information from health experts that show that the vaccines are safe, that the vaccines are effective, that we need to get the vaccines to get through this virus.”
During the briefing, Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine where he is also the Co-director of the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development, said the delta variant is “far more” transmissible than the original COVID-19 virus and warned “We’re looking undoubtedly at a serious surge across the South this summer.”
“The big thing that worries me is by now anyone who’s unvaccinated and has been lucky enough to escape COVID, your luck is about to run out,” Hotez said. “That’s how transmissible this virus is.”
Most of the individuals hospitalized with coronavirus being treated in the Texas Medical Center are unvaccinated and 99 percent of the deaths attributed to coronavirus are among the unvaccinated, Hotez said.
“To put it bluntly, and in very stark terms, essentially anyone who’s hospitalized for COVID right now, pediatric hospitalizations aside, this is adult hospitalizations, anyone who’s hospitalized or is in an ICU from COVID right now is there by choice, is there because they didn’t make the effort to get vaccinated and that’s what we need to fix” Hotez said.
According to Texas Tribune, Texas has seen nearly 9,000 COVID-19 deaths since February. All but 43 were unvaccinated. The Texas Department of State Health Services said that agency did not release details about the 43 deaths and noted that these are preliminary numbers, which could change because each case must be confirmed through public health investigations.
Statewide, more than 50,000 people have died of COVID-19 since March 2020, but the rate of deaths has slowed dramatically since vaccines became widely available in April.
COVID-19 cases have been surging in Texas and nationally -- mostly among unvaccinated people -- as the highly contagious delta variant has become dominant.
For more information on Harris County’s COVID-19 threat level indicators, guidance, and related information visit ReadyHarris.org.
Watch the media briefing in its entirety below:
This article will be updated shortly.