TEXAS – As Houston left 2020 in the rearview mirror, the coronavirus continued to spread throughout the region unchecked, with some of the highest positivity rates since the start of the pandemic.
And that spike will only continue to climb, experts warn, because the numbers do not take into account additional surges tied to holiday gatherings from Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. The pandemic has already claimed the lives of more than 4,600 people from Greater Houston.
The positive test rate statewide hit a record Friday at 21.15 percent, according to a Houston Chronicle review — surpassing the previous high mark, 20.55 percent, in July.
“It’s looking bad,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “We still haven’t seen the full impact of what’s happened after Christmas and New Year’s, so you know it won’t get better — it’s only going to get worse.
Local government officials continued to urge Houstonians to remain careful and cautious as hospitals and doctors begin the long process of vaccinating Texas residents.
“We’re in a very, very precarious situation,” said Rafael Lemaitre, spokesman for County Judge Lina Hidalgo. “As grateful as many of us are to finally cross the threshold into 2021, we’re going to have to keep our shoulder to the wheel in the new year as a community. This virus is not through with us.”
Across Texas, 12,481 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19, marking the fifth consecutive day of record hospitalizations. More than half of the state’s trauma service areas, including Houston, Galveston and Victoria, reported that COVID-19 hospitalizations make up more than 15 percent of total hospital capacity, the threshold that signifies “high hospitalizations.”
In Houston, officials at the Texas Medical Center said that local positivity rates have risen to about 15.3 percent, significantly higher than last week’s daily average of about 11 percent, and the number of average daily positive tests has more than doubled compared with the same week last month.
“As we embark upon a new year, we are facing the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic with a record number of new cases,” TMC President William F. McKeon said in a daily update to staff. “However, we now have renewed hope with the arrival of new vaccines that together we can move to protect our community as soon as possible to isolate and extinguish the COVID-19 virus from our communities.”
Under Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders, if hospitals continue to experience such high numbers of COVID patients for seven consecutive days, some businesses would be required to limit operations until conditions improve.
The increased positivity rates come as Houston and Texas continue to vaccinate front-line workers and the most vulnerable residents. So far, about 340,000 Texans have begun the vaccination process — with about 52,800 of those vaccinations occurring in Harris County.
Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday announced the opening of a public clinic that will administer doses of the Moderna vaccine. Health care workers, people over 65 and people with serious underlying health conditions are eligible and must make an appointment by calling 832-393-4220 between 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. starting Saturday.
But Hotez warned that Harris County and others across Texas face a “daunting” challenge to vaccinate enough people to neutralize the virus’ danger.
In Harris County, public health authorities will have to ramp up a vaccine distribution program to administer the medicine to some 500,000 residents a month, he said — a volume that the Texas Medical Center and other hospitals, clinics and medical practices aren’t equipped to handle.
“We’re not anywhere close to that,” he said.
Instead, the county should consider opening vaccination centers at places such as NRG Stadium or the George R. Brown Convention Center, he said.
“If we can just gear up to get people vaccinated, then nobody has to lose their lives from COVID-19,” he said.