Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo shared both warnings and cautious optimism in a Wednesday press conference in which she announced that seven additional county residents from outside the city of Houston had died from the coronavirus.
She also said she spoke with both Gov. Greg Abbott and federal officials Wednesday about their concerns that the Houston area could become the nation’s next hot spot for the pandemic.
Only two counties in the country—Los Angeles County and Cook County (Chicago)—have a greater population than Harris County and only three cities have a larger population than Houston—New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
So far, Harris County has not been affected to the degree those larger communities have, she said, but the rate of growth in
infections here is still growing.
Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, said there is still concern that the kind of results could happen here as have happened in communities just larger. “We still have a long road ahead of us.”
On a more positive note, Hidalgo said Harris County adopted social distancing efforts earlier in the course of the spread than other large cities did. A study by the Kinder Institute at Rice University that was released this week concluded that early adoption resulted in 4,500 lives saved, she said.
It is in preparation for that possibility that commissioners approved up to $60 million to build a temporary hospital facility at NRG Park.
It is initially being set up with 250 beds but can be expanded. Hidalgo said it will only be used if hospitals reach capacity.
A spokesman from Hidalgo’s office, Rafael Lemaitre, said that both equipment and staff for the facility is being provided by a private contractor, Garner Environmental Group.
“The facility is intended to be a step-down facility, meaning folks who need to be isolated or quarantined or treated at a lower level that might be needed in a hospital setting,” he said.
Hidalgo also announced that all parks owned and operated by the county will be closed over Easter weekend, which is traditionally a time of high park usage. The parks will close at 8 p.m. Thursday and reopen at 8 a.m. Monday.
Not all cities in the county are following suit.
Baytown city spokesman Mark Miller said, “Baytown parks will remain open through the weekend; however, we urge citizens to continue exercising social distancing as a safety measure. We also remind citizens that all equipment at our parks is off-limits.
“It’s important to get outside and avoid staying locked indoors all day, so the parks provide a healthy way for people to do that.”
Hidalgo said the City of Houston is also keeping its parks open, but social distancing rules remain in effect.
Hidalgo encouraged residents to voluntarily comply with social distancing over the weekend, whether with park closings or avoiding other gatherings.
“We should not be in close contact with anybody we don’t live with,” she said.
She said voluntary compliance also helps reduce interactions law enforcement officers must have by the public. Law enforcement officers have a higher infection rate than the general public, she said, so anything that reduces their exposure helps keep them safe.
Also on Wednesday, David Bernard, CEO of Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital provided an updated on the COVID-19 virus to members of the Baytown Rotary Club. Bernard said they have had 29 confirmed cases among patients and four among staff.
He emphasized that the best way the public can help health care workers as well is to maintain social distancing.
“Social distancing works,” he said.
Like Hidalgo, Bernard said the Houston area is still increasing in the rate of infections, but data from the last three or four days suggests that the national rate may have peaked.
Just between April 3 and April 6, projections for the Houston area improved. If compliance with social distancing continues, he said, demand for hospital beds here may not exceed capacity.
Harris County COVID-19 numbers for Wednesday
As of Wednesday afternoon, 2,341 cases of the coronavirus have been reported in Harris County. This includes 1,952 active cases, 358 people who have recovered and 31 people who have died.
In the southeast quadrant of Harris County there have been 241 confirmed cases, with 203 active, 36 recovered and two people have died.
Statewide, Texas has reported 9,353 confirmed cases. Of those, about 770 have recovered and 177 people have died.