As COVID-19 variants increase infection rates in Harris County and vaccination rates lag behind federal goals, local Northwest Houston hospitals urge the community to get vaccinated and mask up when going back to crowded office buildings or schools.

Harris County’s vaccination rate stands at about 43%, with health experts estimating herd immunity occurring at 75%-90%, said Mario Garner, president of CHI St. Luke’s Health-The Vintage Hospital, at the Northwest Houston Chamber of Commerce's State of Health July 15. Over the past two weeks, Harris County COVID-19 cases have been on the rise, with the county leading the state for most reported COVID-19 cases.

“The key message that healthcare providers want to share is that we're not out of the woods yet,” said Scott Davis, CEO of HCA Houston Healthcare Northwest. “We need to be vigilant.”

Davis outlined three future pandemic outcomes as the nation transitions back into the office and schools. He said there is an 80% chance that the U.S. will reach herd immunity by the end of summer via vaccination.

But if vaccine roll outs continue to stall and the delta variant creates a surge in late summer and early fall, which sits at a 15% likelihood, we will see a continued encouragement of masking and social distancing, Davis said. The worst outcome at a 5% probability rate shows vaccines having faltered and surges that reintroduce lockdowns, Davis said.

Davis said that people going back to the office or school should continue to wear masks and social distance whenever crowds are together for longer than 15 minutes where people are not fully vaccinated. And while Keith Barber, CEO of Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital, said Methodist requires all employees to be vaccinated, HCA and St. Luke's have no plans for a mandate.

“This has been a monumental 18 months, not only at this hospital, but I'm sure all of the health systems in Houston,” Garner said. “One of the things that we have to remind ourselves of on a daily basis is that a hospital is not necessarily taking care of people. It is people. The people that we have who are taking care of people.”

Deferred care

From cost concerns to pandemic fears, nearly 40% of people have delayed care in the pandemic, with nearly 30% of patients skipping routine checkups such as breast cancer screenings, Davis said.

This trend is expected to continue, but with the long-term effects of COVID-19 ranging from increased risk of organ damage to diabetes, Davis said it is important for people to continue attending regular doctor’s appointments.

But with massive job loss during the pandemic that cost many their health insurance, high prices are another factor to the delayed care trends, Davis said. Medicaid expansions could help those who are insured, Davis said.

Only nine states are not considering expansions to Medicaid coverage, Texas being one.

Health care digitization

Before the pandemic, mental health was one of the only health services that acquired a significant number of virtual appointments. Since the pandemic, those numbers have shot up and have expanded to other specialties such as internal medicine, radiation and oncology, Davis said.

Methodist has implemented a virtual intensive care unit, virtual registration and has placed Amazon Echo Dots in all patient rooms to allow for them to ask questions or call nurses in different languages, Barber said.

Barber said Methodist is also piloting an interactive microphone that picks up and records keywords in doctor-patient conversations so physicians do not have to split attention between patients and inputting information to a computer.

“The physician is able to stay focused on talking with the patient or eye contact and being ever-present,” Barber said. “So that is certainly something that is advanced during COVID. And we know will continue to advance as we move forward with delivering health care”