As the delta variant of the coronavirus continues to drive up new cases and hospitalizations in the Houston region, Harris County officials have raised the coronavirus threat level from yellow to orange, a shift that indicates the viral spread is now uncontrolled in the community.

At the same time, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is pleading with residents to be more vigilant, asking all residents to start wearing masks again in indoor settings and asking those who are vaccinated to urge their friends who are not to get the shot.

"When we take our masks off right now as the situation worsens, we are normalizing not wearing masks for those who are unvaccinated," Hidalgo said at a July 22 press conference. "We are asking everyone to wear masks. The [virus] can transmit to somebody who is not vaccinated due to high levels of spread."

About 51.4% of the county's overall population has received at least one dose of the vaccine as of July 21, according to county data. Those who are vaccinated can continue to travel freely and participate in large group activities, but those who are unvaccinated should minimize contact with others and avoid large to medium gatherings, Hidalgo said.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have shown to be about 88% effective in protecting people from getting infected with the coronavirus, but they are almost 100% effective at preventing people from needing to be hospitalized because of it, said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of Baylor's National School of Tropical Medicine.

"We don’t want to send the message that these vaccines are not working," Hotez said. "They are. These vaccines will save your life and will save the lives of your loved ones. They will keep you out of the hospital and keep you out of the [intensive care unit]."

Meanwhile, those who are unvaccinated and have not yet gotten the coronavirus should not expect their luck to continue, Hotez said. While not the worst when it comes to vaccinating its population, Hotez said the Houston area has not done well overall, adding to the potential dangers of the fourth wave.

Because older people are more likely to be vaccinated, Hotez said most of the people showing up at hospitals with COVID-19 today are younger people or pediatric patients. As more research is done, studies are showing about 26% of young people dealing with symptoms of Long COVID—a term given to the
long-term cardiovascular and neurological symptoms people sometimes deal with after contracting COVID-19, such as brain fog, prolonged headaches and depression.

The announcement came one day after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott reiterated that he has no intentions to issue another mask mandate in Texas.

From the beginning we’ve seen [that] when there have been mask requirements, people wear the masks. When there is no requirement, people don’t wear it," Hidalgo said. "Not able to require masks, the best I can do is plead with the community."

Hidalgo continued to urge people to get vaccinated, adding that those who refuse to get vaccinated at this point are enabling the virus to spread.

"It’s natural to have questions. It’s OK to be hesitant at first, but there is no shortage of credible information from health experts that the vaccines are safe; the vaccines are effective; and we need to get the vaccine to get through this virus," she said.