Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo reported the viral load of COVID-19 in city of Houston wastewater is the highest it has ever been at the July 19 meeting of Commissioners Court.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began a national wastewater surveillance system in September 2020 as another way to track COVID-19 levels in a community. Wastewater information helps account for people testing at home rather than at a county testing site, according to Hidalgo.

Hidalgo said the viral load is at 927%, or 9.27 times higher than it was in July 2020 when wastewater data was first collected. The city’s wastewater monitoring dashboard shows an increasingly high viral load in the past few months.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said he believes residents should continue to get vaccinations for themselves and their children.

“I want to encourage folks to please take it seriously, and I too will be more diligent about wearing my mask again,” Garcia said.

Hidalgo did not announce a change to the county’s threat level, which has been at the "moderate" threat level—or yellow—since March 10. But as of July 19, there was an average of 83.7 new cases per 100,000 people over the previous seven-day period, meeting the threshold for the higher "significant" threat level, according to Harris County and the city of Houston’s joint COVID-19 data hub. Hidalgo emphasized that case numbers are still high.

Monitoring monkeypox

Harris County Public Health submitted an update on monkeypox to Commissioners Court, reporting two current cases of the rare smallpox-like disease in the county and an additional out-of-state case within the county’s jurisdiction as of July 13; Houston Health Department had 14 cases within its jurisdiction.

In Texas, HCPH reported 42 monkeypox cases in Texas and 1,053 cases in the United States as of July 13, with the highest number of cases in California, New York and Illinois, respectively. By July 19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention case count stood at 81 in Texas and 2,108 across the country.

According to the HCPH update, the threat of monkeypox is low in Harris County. Even so, Garcia said the virus should not be taken lightly, given how the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in the county.

“We were looking at the pandemic in other parts of the world, then we saw it in other parts of the country, then we saw it in other parts of the state, and then we saw it overwhelm us throughout the region,” Garcia said. “Although the CDC says that the threat of monkeypox is low, it’s sort of like art—it’s to the eye of the beholder.”

Dr. Ericka Brown, deputy local health authority for HCPH, said her department is focused on providing outreach to those at high risk for infection and people in underserved areas.

“This week, we’ll be standing up a hotline for anyone who has concern that they may be infected, or just has questions about the infection,” Brown said. “In partnership with our local community partners, we’re working to provide testing and we will absolutely be the safety net provider for those who cannot afford access to testing in a timely manner.”

A vaccine is available for high-risk individuals, including those who may have had direct contact with an infected individual, according to the HCPH court update. People who contract monkeypox may experience flu-like symptoms along with a rash that can be pimple-like or consist of fluid-filled blisters.

For more information on monkeypox, visit HCPH’s website.