Houston on verge of crisis amid surging COVID-19 cases

An explosion of the novel coronavirus in Houston has put the nation's third-largest city at the epicenter of the nation's public health crisis as hospitals fill and officials warn of impending catastrophe.

Harris County officials reported a shocking 1,994 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday alone, a new record. The county has reported more than 1,000 new cases on three of the last four days. Models show the number of cases rising over the next four weeks.

“We're approaching a precipice of disaster,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) told reporters at a briefing this week. “We're looking at very, very concerning numbers in our hospital population that are getting worse by the day.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Harris County has confirmed more than 23,000 coronavirus cases since the outbreak began. About 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 since Memorial Day, worrying some health experts who fear repeating scenes from Italy, where at the height of the coronavirus's worst days in April doctors had to make heart-wrenching decisions about who would get care and who would not.

“The health professionals are nervous, but they are also up for it,” said Kelli Drenner, a public health expert at the University of Houston. “People are concerned that this is a big deal and that the public isn't taking it seriously. And that undermines all our efforts.”

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

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

ADVERTISEMENT

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

Jenn Jacome, director of public relations at Texas Children’s, said the facility is taking in adults suffering from COVID-19 in a special isolation unit on one campus. Adults who need to be hospitalized for other maladies are being cared for at another site.

“Texas Children’s is committed to providing additional capacity through ICU and acute care beds across our hospital campuses to take on both pediatric and adult patients,” Jacome said. “We know Covid-19 has not gone away.”

Harris County is the hardest-hit region in a state where coronavirus cases are growing rapidly. Texas reported more new cases on Tuesday, 5,489, than all but four other states did over the entirety of last week.

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

ADVERTISEMENT

“COVD-19 is now spreading at an unacceptable rate in the state of Texas, and it must be corralled,” Texas Gov. 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 we will keep our state open for business.”

Public health experts have been sharply critical of the state’s rush to reopen and a state government prohibition on local governments implementing more severe restrictions like mandatory mask orders.

“The governor really undermined those public health measures,” Drenner, of the University of Houston, said. “People did a good job here for a long time, but there’s only so long people will go along with it when they're getting so much disinformation.”

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

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

There are few signs 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 to require face coverings at those large gatherings, though he has not signaled an intention to take more aggressive action.

“As we face this challenge, there is no substitute for personal responsibility,” Abbott said in a statement.

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

“People have just completely let their guard down,” Marc Boom, the chief executive at Houston Methodist Hospital, said Wednesday on ABC's “Good Morning America.”

“Somewhere around Memorial Day, people just sort of sighed a breath of 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 never was here.' And I think we're really paying the price for that now,” he added.