As hospitalization rates and ICU use in the Texas Medical Center continue to increase, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner agreed the holiday season will play a pivotal role in the future of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Sherri Onyiego, who serves as the interim local health authority for Harris County Public Health, said the county's COVID-19 positivity rate has doubled over the past two months and may triple by January if the trajectory continues.
"It's tempting, especially during the holidays, to think that it's okay to visit friends and family now, especially now that there's a light at the end of the tunnel with a vaccine," Hidalgo said. "But right now, in the holiday season, as the virus rages on around the nation and our state, we face the greatest challenge yet. In our hospitals, the numbers in the ICU have not stopped creeping up. All across Texas communities are entering danger territory. The current situation where our medical center—the largest in the world—is routinely crossing its base capacity means that procedures are postponed, that health care workers are at risk of burnout, that we can't sustain a surge in infections beyond where we are right now and that we're living at the very, very edge."
As of Dec. 23, Harris County and the city of Houston have a combined 224,245 confirmed coronavirus cases including 27,137 active cases, 194,488 recoveries and 2,605 deaths. In hopes of changing the current trajectory, Turner and Hidalgo urged residents to limit holiday gatherings to only individuals within the same households.
"Like you, I love this time of the year," Turner said. "I look forward to gathering with my brothers and sisters and family members and many, many others, but this will be different, just like Thanksgiving. We're going to show our love for each other by staying physically apart."
Dr. David Persse, who serves as the chief medical officer for the Houston Health Department, added that while spread is not happening in controlled environments such as workplaces and schools, spread is occurring at funerals, weddings and parties when people let their guard down—events similar to Christmas and New Year's Eve gatherings.
"Every one of us up here recognizes that what we're asking—to not have Christmas gatherings—is a huge ask. But it's important," Persse said. "The vaccine is on the horizon—that's good news. But it's not here yet; we don't all have it; we do not have herd immunity."
Hidalgo and Turner said while a curfew had not yet been implemented county- and city-wide as a last-ditch effort to keep residents at home, it is not off the table.
"The mayor and I have discussed potentially imposing a curfew," Hidalgo said. "To be clear, we're choosing not to do that right now because it's a last-resort tool to use when disaster seems unavoidable. Right now, we can turn things around. That being said, we're not ruling out a curfew in the future should we need to put an emergency brake on the already grave situation that we're in."
While COVID-19 testing sites operated by Harris County Public Health and the Houston Health Department will be closed Dec. 24-25, testing will resume Dec. 26. For information on Harris County Public Health testing sites, click here. For information on Houston Health Department testing sites, click here.