Houston on the brink of crisis amid growing COVID-19 cases

An explosion of the new coronavirus in Houston has placed the nation’s third largest city at the epicenter of the country’s public health crisis as hospitals fill up and officials warn of an impending catastrophe.

Harris County officials reported 1,994 new cases of shocking coronaviruses on Tuesday alone, a new record. The county has reported more than 1,000 new cases in three of the past four days. The models show the number of cases that will increase in the next four weeks.

“We are approaching a precipice of disaster,” county judge Lina Hidalgo (D) told reporters at a briefing this week. “We are seeing very, very worrying numbers in our hospital population that are getting worse day by day.”

Harris County has confirmed more than 23,000 coronavirus cases since the outbreak began. Around 330 people have died. Neighboring Fort Bend County has reported another 3,100 cases.

Doctors are monitoring more than 15,400 active cases in the Houston area. Hospitalizations have tripled in the weeks after Memorial Day, worrying some health experts who fear repeating scenes from Italy, where at the height of the worst days of the coronavirus in April, doctors had to make heartbreaking decisions about who would receive attention and who would not.

“Health professionals are nervous, but they are also prepared,” said Kelli Drenner, a public health expert at the University of Houston. “People are concerned that this is a big problem and that the public is not taking it seriously. And that undermines all our efforts. “

Houston is home to some of the largest medical campuses in the world, alleviating at least some concerns about a healthcare system that could be overwhelmed. But even with so many beds available and emergency plans activated, some hospitals are starting to run out of space.

There are so many people hospitalized that Texas Children’s Hospital has begun admitting adult patients who are overflowing from the Texas Medical Center. Hidalgo said Tuesday that 86 percent of the county’s intensive care beds are occupied.

“They are in an accelerated part of their epidemic right now,” said David Rubin, an epidemiologist at PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who is modeling cases in dozens of counties across the country. “Their growth rate has increased, and that to me is very scary in terms of the possibility of running out of health care resources.”

Jenn Jacome, director of public relations for Texas Children’s, said the facility is receiving adults with COVID-19 in a special isolation unit on campus. Adults who need to be hospitalized for other illnesses are being cared for elsewhere.

“Texas Children’s is committed to providing additional capacity through the ICU and intensive care beds on our hospital campuses to serve pediatric and adult patients,” said Jacome. “We know that Covid-19 is not gone.”

Harris County is the worst affected region in a state where coronavirus cases are growing rapidly. Texas reported more new cases Tuesday, 5,489, than all but four other states in the past week.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area has about 9,800 active coronavirus cases between Dallas and Tarrant counties. San Antonio Bexar County is monitoring nearly 4,000 active cases. Travis County, Austin’s home, has reported 1,700 active cases.

“COVD-19 is now spreading at an unacceptable rate in the state of Texas, and must be cornered,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) said Monday. “Texans have shown that we don’t have to choose between jobs and health, we can have both. We can protect lives while also restoring livelihoods. Together, we will keep Texans safe and keep our state open for business. “

Public health experts have been highly critical of the state’s rush to reopen and the state government’s ban on local governments implementing more stringent restrictions such as mandatory mask orders.

“The governor really undermined those public health measures,” said Drenner of the University of Houston. “People did a good job here for a long time, but there is only a good amount of time that they will accept it when they get so much misinformation.”

Models maintained by PolicyLab show that the number of cases in the Houston area grew exponentially over the next four weeks. Community transmission may already be at such a widespread level that even taking a drastic step like requiring masks in public places may not be enough to eliminate the coronavirus.

“They may need to pause and give it time to cool down,” Rubin said.

There is little sign that fiercely independent Texans are willing to crack down once again. Abbott signed an order Tuesday that will allow local officials to limit the size of outdoor gatherings and demand that they cover their faces at those large gatherings, although he has not indicated an intention to take more aggressive measures.

“In facing this challenge, there is no substitute for personal responsibility,” Abbott said in a statement.

Houston experienced an early spike in coronavirus cases in early April, but a further surge in cases began in earnest after the Memorial Day weekend, when thousands traveled to the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. Models maintained by PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia show that Houston residents are practicing much less social distancing than in the first days of the outbreak.

“People have let their guard down completely,” Marc Boom, executive director of Houston Methodist Hospital, said Wednesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“Somewhere around Memorial Day, people sighed in relief and said, ‘Hey, it’s summer, I’m going to act like it’s summer and I’m going to act like this thing has never been here.'” And I think we are really paying the price for that now, “he added.