Houston area officials on Thursday unveiled a new color-coded threat level warning system for the public amid growing concerns that local COVID-19 related hospitalizations are at their highest levels since the pandemic began and have steadily risen as the state has continued to reopen.
“I want the reopening to be successful. I want the economy to be resilient. But I’m growing increasingly concerned that we may be approaching the precipice of a disaster,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said about rising local hospital admissions due to the coronavirus.
In Harris County, where Houston is located, the number of people hospitalized with suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19 has gone from 479 on May 1, when Texas started to reopen its businesses, to 776 as of Wednesday, an increase of 62%, according to data from the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council, a state group that coordinates the region’s emergency response to disasters.
Hidalgo, the county’s top elected official, said there is still plenty of ICU and hospital capacity in the Houston area.
Hidalgo said she was not trying to be an alarmist with the new warning system but wanted to provide clear guidance on what the public can do to help avoid a crisis.
The new threat level system has four levels: one or red for severe, two or orange for significant, three or yellow for moderate and four or green for minimal. Hidalgo said the county is at level two, which asks people to minimize contact with others and avoid medium or large gatherings. It is similar to other COVID-19 related warning systems previously set up in other locations, including Dallas and Utah.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the new threat level system is more of a way to provide information to residents as local leaders do not have the authority to order residents to stay home or shut down businesses as that power now rests with the state.
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“The state has preempted local governments from hitting the brakes. What we have is our voice and providing information and monitoring the situation” and encouraging people to wear masks and engage in social distancing and proper hygiene, Turner said.
A spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t immediately reply to an email seeking comment on whether the state will take any specific actions regarding the hospitalization increases in Harris County or if the state would allow local officials to resume setting their own COVID-19 restrictions.
Abbott this week reiterated he was “concerned but not alarmed” in Texas. He has not signaled any intention of putting social or business restrictions back in place.
In Texas, hospitalizations have mostly been increasing since June 1. On Thursday, the state reported 2,008 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, slightly down from the record high of 2,153 reported on Wednesday.
On Thursday, state health officials reported 81,583 positive cases, an increase of 1,826 from the prior day. That was down from the single-day state record of more than 2,500 new cases set on Wednesday. Officials reported 35 new deaths on Thursday, bringing the state’s total to 1,920.
Harris County has the most cases in the state, with 15,552.
Texas has had one of the fastest re-openings of its economy and additional restrictions were set to be lifted on Friday.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.