OFFICIAL: Harris County Public Health expects to see coronavirus peak in early May

Dr. Sherri Onyiego, the medical director for Nutrition and Chronic Disease for Harris County Public Health, spoke with Community Impact Newspaper about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and Harris County's preparedness. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Dr. Sherri Onyiego, the medical director for Nutrition and Chronic Disease for Harris County Public Health, spoke with Community Impact Newspaper about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and Harris County's preparedness. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Dr. Sherri Onyiego, the medical director for Nutrition and Chronic Disease for Harris County Public Health, spoke with Community Impact Newspaper about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and Harris County's preparedness. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Dr. Sherri Onyiego, the medical director for Nutrition and Chronic Disease for Harris County Public Health, spoke with Community Impact Newspaper about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and Harris County's preparedness. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When do you expect to see a coronavirus peak in Harris County?

We have had a number of academic partners and other community partners that have put together some modeling and projections for when that peak surge of cases would hit [which is] based on the current interventions that we have in place now like social distancing. So right now, those projections look like somewhere around early May.

I’ll also tell you that right now, we’re seeing an increase in case count in real time and a lot of that is really related to increased testing, but also there’s a backlog in the results of some of those tests and so as more results are coming through, you’re seeing that play out in the number of cases that we’re reporting.

Is HCPH ramping up its coronavirus testing capabilities?

Yes, we want to make sure that we are making those efforts available to our community as best as possible. We are collaborating our current testing efforts with our federal partners and we want to make sure we have ample testing capabilities to be able to deploy those additional resources to other parts of the county.

How full is the Harris County hospital system in terms of capacity already?

We hope to be able to get some more targeted information about our current hospital partners. As you know, the Texas Medical Center is the largest medical center in the world so we have some of the brightest minds working together on this issue all the way from novel therapies to vaccine development, so I think that we are certainly in a good position to be able to contribute to this rapidly evolving and emerging issue with COVID-19. We hope to hear some information that really spells out what the hospital capacity looks like right now for the TMC and also our regional partners. We rely on them to be able to sort of paint that picture for us so we can have more of a community sort of approach or look at what the capacity looks like—so that information is forthcoming.

Why is HCPH only breaking down cases by county quadrant?

Our entire team has been working tirelessly behind the scenes to really be able to provide and narrate a story of what’s happening in our county so we set up an external facing dashboard that outlines the number of cases and hospitalizations and also looks at the age and sex of those confirmed cases and those cases that have recovered. Also on that dashboard is a map of our county and we break that down into four quadrants based on the four precincts and that information is updated daily. We don’t necessarily drive all the way down to the ZIP code level because we are trying to provide a level of privacy and protection so individuals won’t necessarily be at risk of identification. Typically, we have also reported on reportable diseases based on quadrant.

What are some of HCPH’s biggest concerns and priorities in regard to the coronavirus?

One of the issues that we want to make sure that we are addressing is the fact that we want to make sure that individuals are adhering to [Harris County] Judge [Lina] Hidalgo’s Stay Home, Work Safe order. We know how important social distancing is. As our Executive Director Dr. [Umair] Shah says, although we may be socially distance, we are certainly emotionally connected and so we all play a part in really contributing to helping end this pandemic in our community by just staying home, by keeping those social distances, by ensuring that we are washing our hands, covering our coughs, covering our sneezes, cleaning our surfaces—really being vigilant about our own personal health because at the end of the day, that also impacts others around us and so that’s what we can do on an individual level from a responsibility issue to really do all that we can do to help flatten that curve and really take this seriously.

Are there specific populations that HCPH is particularly concerned about?

Coronavirus can impact and infect pretty much anyone and so we certainly know there’s those high risk populations—those individuals that are older than the age of 60-65, individuals with underlying chronic diseases, individuals with weakened immune systems, pregnant women—we certainly want to do our best to ensure that those individuals are protected and like I said, it does not mean that coronavirus only impacts those groups, it can really impact anyone, but those individuals could have more complications [with coronavirus] than individuals that are healthy and don’t have any underlying issues.

If someone believes that they might have the coronavirus, what protocol should they follow?

We set up an online screening tool where individuals can access a screening questionnaire and be able to put in the symptoms that they’re having and that information that’s generated after that survey is completed will help an individual to determine if they need to receive an evaluation for testing. And we also have a call center so if an individual does not have access to a computer or may have challenges with being able to do that themselves, then they can call our call center and someone can walk them through that survey. To reach the call center, call 832-927-7575.

How can Harris County residents best protect themselves from the coronavirus?

We are really reinforcing Judge Hidalgo’s Stay Home, Work Safe order. We really want to ensure that everyone abides by those recommendations in that order. Practice social distancing, step up those efforts for personal hygiene and personal protection, because we know that, that really helps to flatten the curve and prevent that surge that we’re trying to offset with the health care system.

The CDC came out with their recommendation to wear cloth coverings in public and we certainly recommend that as well. Part of that is because more and more of the science and data is telling us that there are individuals who are asymptomatic—or who don’t have symptoms like a fever or cough or sore throat or shortness of breath—they haven’t shown those symptoms yet, and still may be infected with coronavirus. So it’s really an effort for individuals that, you know, may be in that category who may be out and about in the community and we now know that this is community spread—not just related to travel. So having some sort of covering whether that be a mask or a cloth covering is really to protect others. To learn more about making face masks, click here.
By Hannah Zedaker
Born and raised in Cypress, Texas, Hannah Zedaker graduated from Sam Houston State University in 2016 with a bachelor's degree in mass communication and a minor in political science. She began as an intern with Community Impact Newspaper in 2015 and was hired upon graduation as a reporter for The Woodlands edition in May 2016. In January 2019, she was promoted to serve as the editor of the Spring/Klein edition where she covers Spring ISD and Harris County Commissioners Court, in addition to business, development and transportation news.


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