July COVID-19 case surge sparks local response from The Woodlands area hospitals, Montgomery County officials

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Following more than four months of rising coronavirus cases, area hospitals collaborated to handle a surge in cases in July, while Montgomery County officials did not call for more stringent restrictions to enforce statewide public health orders.

While COVID-19 hospitalizations began decreasing in some hospitals in late July, Montgomery County reported cases in six ZIP codes around The Woodlands area increased more than 60% since July 1. Hospital officials said they are working to meet the demand.

“We have been stretched in both our general and [intensive care unit] bed capacity. In some hospitals we have expanded into nontraditional beds,” said Jason Glover, vice president of operations at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center.

Despite these concerns, Montgomery County officials have not extended stay-at-home recommendations since the initial measures expired in May and have not considered masking mandates for businesses—both concepts that have been adopted in neighboring Harris County.

Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough defended his position, stating he believes the governor’s orders have been ambiguous and therefore not enforceable.

“The governor has removed the ability of local government to implement local orders and instead has opted for a one-size-fits-all approach,” Keough said. Sharing the caseload

To cope with a surge of coronavirus patients, hospitals in both Montgomery and Harris counties are collaborating. Despite the efforts, The Woodlands-area hospitals reported being strained throughout July as they worked to treat Montgomery County’s rising number of coronavirus patients and support treatment of residents of other jurisdictions.

“I feel sometimes there is a misconception that [COVID-19] is not an issue in Montgomery County. While not at the magnitude of Harris County, our case count has been increasing at a concerning level,” Glover said.

According to hospital data compiled by the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council, the number of confirmed COVID-19 patients in Montgomery County hospital beds rose in June and July. Although Montgomery County recorded several dozen or fewer general hospital beds used daily in the early months of the pandemic, the number passed 200 in early July. The number of COVID-19 patients in ICU beds peaked at 96 on July 7, which is 46% of the county’s ICU surge capacity.

Debbie Sukin, the CEO of Houston Methodist The Woodlands, said at its peak the second week of July, the hospital system as a whole was treating around 700 coronavirus patients.

“To put that in perspective, in April we saw a peak of 200,” Sukin said. “All of our hospitals have worked collectively to expand our capacity and be able to meet the needs of Houston.”

Health officials said coordinating response and keeping communication lines between facilities open have been essential.

“We’ve been working with [the SETRAC] to make sure patients are placed throughout the region,” said Dr. Syed Raza. vice president of medical operations at CHI St. Luke’s Health-The Woodlands Hospital. “The [chief medical officers] and CEOs of all of the facilities have each other’s cell numbers and communicate and collaborate frequently.”

While hospitals began to exceed their regular capacity, Sukin reported as of Aug. 3 there had been a decrease in coronavirus patients over the past week, and the number of total patients being treated at Houston Methodist hospitals was 500, with 24 in The Woodlands branch.

Gordy Bunch, the chair of the Woodlands Township board of directors, said in a video message July 27 that despite additional hospitalizations, he believes the local health care infrastructure is equipped to handle current demands.

“So far to date, we have not breached our daily operational basis for our ICU beds or our general beds,” Bunch said. “I want to encourage our residents that we do have the medical infrastructure to address the needs as they are today.”

County stance

Montgomery County saw the total number of reported coronavirus cases rise in June and July.

The county’s case count had not yet reached 1,000 on June 1, nearly three months after the first local case was reported, but it increased by 551% to 6,291 as of Aug. 3, according to Montgomery County Public Health District data. The majority of the county’s nearly 6,000 confirmed cumulative cases were recorded in July. The state has followed a similar trend of increasing cases, as cumulative cases across Texas grew from less than 65,000 on June 1 to more than 442,000 on Aug. 3—a 581% increase.

In response, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued an executive order requiring businesses to mandate masks as of June 22, but Montgomery County had not followed suit as of late July. Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough has spoken out against mandated mask wearing.

Keough stated while he believes face coverings can help limit the virus’s spread, he cited several issues as barriers to adopting mask requirements in Montgomery County.

“At the end of the day, one size does not fit all, and local government in a state our size, being able to act on behalf of the people will help us to get back to normal sooner than later,” Keough said.

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office also opposed the measure in a July 3 statement, saying its officers would not require compliance.

“This order includes specific language prohibiting law enforcement from detaining, arresting, or confining to jail as a means to enforce the order,” Lt. Scott Spencer said in a statement.

Commissioners did elect to extend the county’s disaster declaration July 14, which officials said allows for easier access to supplies needed for its COVID-19 response.

Montgomery County officials announced on July 15 the county changed the way it reports COVID-19 cases to prevent backlogs. It now reports all positive cases received before it launches a contact tracing investigation. In July the county also increased the number of county staff that conducts tracing from three to nine.

Seth Chandler, a constitutional law expert and a professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center, said in a mid-July interview he believes state officials have more power to support public health than has been used in places such as Montgomery County.“I’m a little skeptical that the views on the constitutionality or legality of these provisions may align with political beliefs about whether wearing masks is a good idea or not,” Chandler said.

Chandler also noted the influence of politics on mask wearing throughout the state as a perceived infringement on personal freedom.

“There developed a ... notion that you have some sort of constitutional right to not engage in public health safety measures if you don’t want to,” Chandler said. “That is just completely false.”

Keough has framed the freedom of choice related to mask wearing as a statutory and moral decision.

“Those who choose to wear a mask and those who don’t [choose] to wear a mask are both within their constitutional rights to act according to their conscience. There is absolutely no proof that if you just wear a mask you will safely avoid contracting the virus,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks as a method to limit those who may have COVID-19 from spreading it to others rather than for personal protection.

Local effects

The disease’s spread has also affected local businesses and events.

In The Woodlands Township, positive COVID-19 tests by pool and boathouse employees have prompted multiple temporary closures. July 4 celebrations in the region were also canceled or reduced this year, and local governments have reported COVID-19 cases among their staff. Board of directors meetings in The Woodlands remained online only as of late July, and limited in-person attendance resumed in Shenandoah.

However, Abbott’s order also forced some businesses that had planned on reopening to remain closed.Bars and establishments with 51% or more of their sales based on alcohol were closed by the governor’s order June 26. Restaurants were sent back to a half-capacity requirement after having ramped their business up to 75% capacity June 12.

“Our industry has been hit hard and continues to be the target for the spread of [COVID-19]. It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming months towards the hospitality industry as a whole,” said Todd Weaver, managing partner at Woodson’s Local Tap + Kitchen, which has a location on FM 1488.

BY Andrew Christman & Ben Thompson


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