The items included one to ensure Harris County and its departments work with the county's Office of Emergency Management and Department of Public Health to prioritize coronavirus preparedness above nonessential functions, another to authorize departments to make necessary purchases to expedite the county’s response to coronavirus, and a third item instructing human resources to implement a procedure for compensating county employees in the event of any disruption caused by coronavirus.
All three items passed unanimously during the March 10 Commissioners Court meeting.
“We obviously have obstacles to containment; Harris County is not an insular nation that we can shut down its borders,” Hidalgo said during the meeting. “With that in mind, we have to think about not only containment but also resilience and mitigation. We have to recognize that it’s likely, perhaps very likely, that we’re going to find ourselves in a position where there is widespread incidence of coronavirus.”
Hidalgo added the county has been working closely with the Harris County Public Health Department and the Harris County Office of Emergency Management, as well as with those of neighboring communities including the city of Houston and Fort Bend County, to trace contacts for each of the local coronavirus cases as quickly as possible.
“We‘re all working together even though we have different jurisdictions; we recognize the disease doesn’t respect our political boundaries,” Hidalgo said.
In addition to challenges of containment, Hidalgo said the county’s limited testing capabilities are another issue the county is working to address. To enhance that capacity as well as those of local health care providers, Harris County is working with the Texas Medical Center, area hospitals and their CEOs to ensure each is prepared to receive and isolate potential future coronavirus cases.
“In many places, they’re testing many times the number of testes we’re able to do,” she said. “Right now, we have to request approval from the state before they even allow us to send a test to the city of Houston lab or the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] lab in Atlanta, and so there are folks that we believe should be tested that are waiting in a queue. When we increase our testing capabilities, we expect to see an increase in the number of diagnosed cases—it’s just logical.”
Hidalgo added that in areas that have already experienced widespread coronavirus, 50%-70% of the population is affected with about 80% of those who are affected only experiencing symptoms akin to that of a mild flu. The remaining 20%, she said, are the more serious cases that typically are found in those who are age 80 and older and have pre-existing conditions that make them more vulnerable.
“If and when this ever becomes more widespread, we need to make sure that we all are careful and recognize that it's older folks who are more at risk,” she said.
In addition to coordinating with other entities, Harris County Engineer John Blount said his office is installing hand sanitizer dispensers and enhancing cleaning protocol for all county facilities.
“We’ve developed a protocol for my employees, who actually work in correctional facilities, [because] the last thing we want is an electrician to go into the jail and bring the disease into the jail," he said. "We’ve also worked with purchasing on-call contracts in case we have to sanitize a floor or facility following CDC protocol.”
Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia added his office has likewise ramped up its sanitation processes and is continuing to evaluate the status of the precinct’s senior program.
Mark Sloan, the coordinator for the emergency management office, added while a lot of unknowns remain surrounding coronavirus and its future in Harris County, it is important for everyone to be prepared.
“It’s like a hurricane [or] a rain event—we tell you there’s going to be 10 inches of rain in Harris County—I can’t tell you where it’s going to happen, but everyone needs to pay attention,” Sloan said. “We don’t isolate and say, ‘Only this sector is going to get impacted.’ It’s all of us.”