"Yesterday, the governor announced his plan to begin reopening on May 1, and I appreciate the support he's provided us with [medical shelter at] NRG, with testing and additional [personal protective equipment] for our community," Hidalgo said during a press conference April 28. "But as the epicenter of COVID-19 in Texas, we in Harris County can't take our eye off the ball. Frankly, I think that containing this virus will be a tall order given the May 1 timeline, but we're going to do everything we can ... to try and make it work."
On April 27, Hidalgo announced the formation of a testing strike team as well as the addition of two new mobile testings sites to ramp up the county's testing capabilities—the first component of the COVID-19 containment plan.
"We have quadrupled our epidemiology size at the department ... we were at 20-25 epidemiology staff members; we have now gotten to that 80-90-100 range," said Dr. Umair Shah, the director of Harris County Public Health. "We're doing everything we can to increase testing but having a test does not help us unless you actually go to get tested."
The next day, Hidalgo announced the expansion of the county's tracing capabilities as part of the plan's second phase.
"As part of the effort, Harris County will recruit around 300 contact tracers with the ability to expand as needed," Hidalgo said. "These are folks who are going to reach out to people who have come into contact with someone who's infected, ensure they get tested and ensure that they isolate for at least two weeks so that they're not spreading the virus."
Hidalgo said potential sources of the additional workforce will include new hires, contractors, existing Harris County staff and volunteers. She added the initiative will kick off with an item on the April 28 Commissioners Court agenda, which—if approved—will allow the county to hire the first round of experts and scientists needed to oversee the contact tracing initiative.
She added even with social distancing measures in place, for every positive coronavirus case there are about 20 contact tracings that need to be followed up on and tested.
"[Contact tracing is] tough—that's not easy," Shah said. "It's a very difficult, labor-intensive process to identify who the contacts are of that individual and be able to then follow up with them. But doing so and having additional contact tracing capacity augments what we've already done."
Hidalgo said as the workforce is expected to include existing Harris County staff and volunteers, a cost associated with the initiative has not yet been determined.
For the "treat" component of the three-pronged plan, Hidalgo said while the county did not need to utilize the NRG medical shelter last month and is now being shut down, as the state and county begin to slowly reopen, the virus could re-surge.
"The virus is still here so if everybody comes out in full force and doesn't take precautions and the virus spreads too fast for us to be able to keep up with ... we could have another spike and we could need an emergency shelter," HIdalgo said. "So, we're ... transitioning to a local solution now that materials have arrived that weren't available a month ago—so cots we'd ordered weeks ago finally, are here, ventilators, staff—we finally have the materials to standup an emergency shelter with local resources as opposed to contracting one out and so as we wind down the [NRG medical] shelter, we're building our own."
As of April 27, Shah said the state of Texas had more than 25,000 confirmed coronavirus cases with Harris County accounting for 5,827 of those cases. Likewise, Hidalgo added the county is averaging about 200 hospital admissions on a daily basis.
"Our hospital admissions are not ... as low as they need to be so that there is enough of a buffer for hospitals to sustain a new wave of cases—that's concerning," she said. "But if we're going to move forward and, per the governor we're going to, so to the extent that you minimize contacts, to the extent that you wear masks, that you do your part—we're going to keep our hospitals in a positive position and that continues to be on all of us."
To be tested for coronavirus, Shah said those with symptoms as well as those who are asymptomatic but believe they may have been in contact with a positive case should click here or call 832-927-7575.
"If we let our foot off the gas right now, the virus will inevitably come back, and it may come back with as much force, if not more force, as before," Hidalgo said. "Our only real weapon right now is social distancing, face coverings, making sure that we're being prudent with our interactions that if we feel we may have the virus, we're getting testing so folks can begin identifying and doing this work of contact tracing. Every single piece here depends on you, and this is a war that's very much still going on."