Running the Numbers While COVID-19 Remains a Threat in Houston

The positivity rate is down, so that’s great, except maybe the first set of numbers wasn’t right? The number of hospital admissions has dropped, but people aren’t coming in to be tested, so we don’t really know how many cases there are. We have an inadequate computer system (what a shock!) trying to keep up with new cases (and failing).

Coronavirus numbers are everywhere and understandably Houston area residents, eyes glazed and minds numbed by all these statistics, just really want to know the basics:

Is it safe out there yet?

Is my child all right to go to school? To see his grandparents?

Am I going to have a job, a home, a life after this is all over?

We don’t have answers to those basic questions. No one does. All health and government officials can offer are numbers. And as much as everyone would like to set all this aside and resume their Before Lives, what follows are the best assessments and guidance – complete with some spots of hope — that the experts can give us for now. Yes, we know. It’s a bitter pill.

Despite some promising downward trends in the number of COVID-19 patients in local hospitals and in the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive, the coronavirus crisis in the Houston area is nowhere near over. Public health officials continue to urge locals to get tested for COVID-19 amid a regional testing decline, while county officials are publicly debating school reopening benchmarks and the City of Houston continues to roll-out COVID-19 relief programs for those whose livelihoods have been threatened by the coronavirus.

Since mid-July, the amount of patients in area hospitals with COVID-19 has been steadily decreasing. According to data from the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council, 12 percent of Harris County’s total hospital beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients as of Thursday, which is down from a high of just over 30 percent as of July 14. On Thursday, 10.1 percent of Harris County’s general hospital beds currently in use were taken up by COVID-19 patients — down from a high of 27.3 percent on July 14 — and 26.1 percent of the county’s occupied intensive care unit beds were filled by COVID-19 patients, down from the previous high of 53.9 percent on July 18.

Texas Medical Center daily COVID-19 patient admittance rates show a promising downward trend since early July.

Texas Medical Center daily COVID-19 patient admittance rates show a promising downward trend since early July.

Chart provided by Texas Medical Center

A similar downward trend can be seen in the number of daily new COVID-19 hospitalizations within Texas Medical Center member hospitals. On Wednesday, TMC hospitals admitted 117 new COVID-19 patients, which is down from the average 147 new hospitalizations per day last week and the average 270 hospitalizations per day in July. The highest number of new daily COVID-19 hospitalizations at TMC hospitals during the pandemic was 446 back on July 5.

July 5 also saw the highest recorded 14-day average COVID-19 test positivity rate within Houston, when it topped-out at 30.9 percent according to the Houston Health Department. As of August 14, Houston’s positivity rate had fallen to almost half its previous high, all the way down to 15.9 percent. Within Harris County as a whole, the 14-day average positivity rate of COVID-19 tests was 12.5 percent as of Thursday according to Harris County Public Health, down from 22.7 percent as of July 4.

Recent issues with statewide test result reporting have led some to question whether or not positivity rate statistics that relies on data from the Texas Department of State Health Services can be trusted. Earlier this week, Gov. Greg Abbott said that an inadequate computer system that left the state health department able to only analyze 45-48,000 cases a day was fixed earlier this month, but that the old system combined with errors from private test labs and healthcare providers led to a backlog of hundreds of thousands of test results that DSHS is still working through analyzing.

Those data analysis issues caused multiple suspicious spikes and dramatic decreases in the statewide positivity rate, which hit a pandemic-high of 24.5 percent on August 11 before falling all the way down to 10.8 percent seven days later. The Houston Health Department has been working through analyzing test results recently received from this backlog, which led to a public revision of the reported city positivity rate. The revised metrics based on the newly received numbers from the state still reflect the same significant downward trend as the previously available positivity metrics showed, Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department explained on Wednesday.

While decreasing COVID-19 hospitalizations and fewer positive test results are obviously good news, local public health officials don’t want area residents to think these encouraging statistics mean that COVID-19 isn’t still a significant threat. For one, there are still a significant number of new COVID-19 cases being reported every day. On Wednesday, the TMC reported 1,777 new cases within its nine-county service region, and its guidelines say that the coronavirus shouldn’t be considered under control within the greater Houston area until that number falls to less than 200 new cases a day for at least two weeks.

On Thursday, the Houston Health Department reported 501 new cases of COVID-19 and an additional 14 coronavirus deaths within the city limits, bringing the city’s total cumulative case count to 59,404 and the city’s total death count to 679. Harris County Public Health reported on Thursday afternoon that the total number of COVID-19 cases confirmed across all of Harris County has now reached 95,631, and that 1,122 county residents have died from COVID-19 during the pandemic.

Due to the still high number of new daily COVID-19 cases and the still relatively high number of COVID-19 patients in local ICUs, Harris County remains at the red alert level on the COVID-19 public threat system Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Harris County Public Health’s Dr. Umair Shah unveiled back in June. Last week, Hidalgo issued a legally nonbinding “Roadmap to Reopen Schools” based on the previous threat level guidance, which recommends that local school districts operate virtually until metrics like COVID-19 ICU occupancy and new daily case counts fall dramatically.

Earlier this week, the superintendents of ten school districts in the greater Houston area — Tomball, Spring Branch, Pasadena, Klein, Katy, Humble, Huffman, Deer Park, Cy-Fair and Clear Creek ISDs — sent Shah a letter in which they criticized the county’s school reopening roadmap for promoting “continued indefinite closure” which they believe “will be harmful to children.”

Harris County Public Health disputed that characterization in a statement issued Tuesday. “In its guidance, HCPH has recommended that in-person activities be phased-in until community spread of COVID-19 declines. To monitor and inform phased-in approaches for in-person activities, HCPH has recommended a set of benchmarks and metrics to monitor public health trends. These indicators do not mean that in-person activities for schools will be closed indefinitely until a vaccine is available and the pandemic is over,” the statement read.

Persse has repeatedly stressed in recent remarks to the public that the Houston area positivity rate needs to fall to 5 percent or below in order for schools to safely reopen and for local contact tracing efforts to be able to keep up with the influx in new cases. He’s also expressed concern that the number of Houstonians going out and getting tested for COVID-19 has fallen off dramatically since late June, when the city’s two main testing sites at Delmar Stadium and Butler Stadium would routinely reach their daily testing capacity by mid-day.

The latest publicly available metrics from the Houston Health Department show a huge decrease in local COVID-19 testing.

The latest publicly available metrics from the Houston Health Department show a huge decrease in local COVID-19 testing.

Chart provided by Houston Health Department

Those two sites haven’t hit anywhere close to their max capacity in over a month, which Persse has said worries him that area residents might have been lulled into a false sense of security based on the declining local hospitalization and positivity rates, as well as the fact that back when the Butler and Delmar test sites were maxing out, it sometimes took as long as two weeks for people to get results back.

“This is not the time to take your foot off the brake,” Persse said during a Wednesday press conference before urging Houstonians to take advantage of the recently increased local testing capacity.

Since the beginning of August, two new federally-funded free surge-testing sites have opened up at Kingwood Park Community Center and at Darrell Tully Stadium, which each can provide 1,250 tests per day and promise test results in three to five business days. Harris County’s two largest free test sites at Pridgeon Stadium and San Jacinto Central Campus were also converted into surge-testing sites with the same capacity and turnaround times earlier this month.

In addition, a new major free testing site at Minute Maid Park operated by the Texas Division of Emergency Management was opened back on August 8. This site offers a mouth swab saliva test as opposed to the nasal swab tests offered at the other major local free testing sites. According to the CDC, the type of saliva test offered at Minute Maid is able to be analyzed with the same lab techniques as nasal swab tests, so they are considered similarly reliable, as opposed to saliva-based antigen tests that tend to turn up a high number of false negative results.

A number of recently announced local COVID-19 relief programs are in the process of rolling out as well. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced on Wednesday that over 2,700 area landlords had already enrolled in the city’s latest rental relief program. Landlords can continue to apply through this Wednesday — and must agree not to evict any of their residents through September 20 if even a single resident qualifies for funding — and tenants can submit applications starting on Monday all the way through August 30.

The city’s Small Business Economic Relief Program also recently launched, which will allocate $15 million of grants out of federal CARES Act funding to local small businesses struggling to get by due to COVID-19. Business owners can apply now for the program online, and applications will stay open until September 4.

Turner also announced on Wednesday a newly approved $2 million fund for creative businesses, artists and nonprofits facing economic challenges thanks to COVID-19. This new fund will offer grants to the 1,236 creative businesses that have been previously vetted by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs.

Individual artists could receive up to $1,000 in grants, while nonprofit organizations that qualify could get grants of up to $15,000. The Houston Arts Alliance said it will send out notifications about eligibility to those 1,236 applicants, and anyone interested in applying can check their eligibility online.


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