Harris County lowered its coronavirus threat level May 18 for the first time since last June as county leaders acknowledged the efficacy of vaccines and the resulting drop in new coronavirus cases, testing positivity and hospitalizations. The threat level also will no longer apply to people who have been vaccinated, officials said.

At a May 18 press conference, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said all county buildings and libraries will reopen at 50% capacity starting May 19. Curbside programs that were put in place at libraries during the pandemic will stay in place, she said.

However, plans to require masks in county buildings were immediately called into question by an executive order announced by Gov. Greg Abbott prohibiting local governments from imposing mask mandates. Abbott's order, announced in a May 18 news release, also prohibits school districts from requiring masks starting June 4.

Hidalgo, who was made aware of Abbott's order during the press conference, said she would review the order before commenting. She said the idea behind continuing to require masks was to protect those who are still not vaccinated.

"We need to look out for the whole community," she said. "These kids are around teachers, around classmates who may not have gotten a vaccine. They can spread it, so just think about that when you're deciding what to do and what your child should do."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ended all federal mask mandates May 13, with some exceptions for people in airports and other certain buildings.

Hidalgo said she considered May 18 a major milestone in the county's battle against COVID-19 and cause for celebration. In addition to the prevalence of vaccines, she said the lowering of the threat level was also possible due to efforts by residents to voluntarily follow guidance.

"We made it through this through hard sacrifice—missing birthdays, missing holidays, missing even weddings, funerals," she said. "The moment we’re in today is brought in large part by those sacrifices."

Under the former threat level, "severe," residents were urged to stay home and avoid social contact when possible. Under the new threat level, "significant," residents are advised to avoid medium to large gatherings and limit contacts. However, Hidalgo said the threat level only applies to unvaccinated people from here on out, citing CDC guidance. About 32.4% of all Harris County residents and 39.3% of residents age 12 and older have been vaccinated, she said.

The county has seen hospitalizations and daily case counts steadily declining since January. Case counts plateaued in the early spring before sharply dropping at the start of May, around which time testing positivity also began to fall. Although testing positivity rates still have not met standards set by the county to lower the threat level, Hidalgo said those standards were recently determined to no longer be suitable due to a drastic drop in the number of people getting tested.

"The CDC no longer advises folks who have the vaccine to get treated if they come into contact with someone who has COVID," Hidalgo said. "That artificially increases the positivity rate. The positivity rate is still a useful metric, but we can’t hang our hat on it anymore."

Moving forward, the threshold for the county to return to a "severe" threat level has also be raised when it comes to testing positivity, Hidalgo said. Additionally, case counts will be focused on the population and will no longer be tied to contact tracing, she said.

Despite the good news, Hidalgo cautioned that the coronavirus was still in the community, with roughly 300 new cases confirmed per day and around 11.6% of patients in intensive care units testing positive. She urged people to keep getting vaccinated.

"It's very much not a mission accomplished moment," she said.