HOUSTON (CN) — With the omicron variant raising the coronavirus testing positivity rate to a record 35% in Texas’ largest county, its chief executive Monday upped its Covid-19 threat level to red for the third time in the pandemic, urging the unvaccinated to stay home except for the most essential needs.
“We are in the midst of another Covid-19 tsunami. And this time it truly is a tsunami when it comes to those cases. It’s like nothing we’ve seen before in this pandemic,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat who has clashed with Republican state officials in her efforts to stop the spread of the virus. In Texas, a county judge is its top executive, not a judicial officer.
About 65% of residents age 5 and older are fully vaccinated in the county — which includes Houston and is the third-largest in the U.S. with 4.7 million residents — and 75% have received at least one dose, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Hidalgo said in some area hospitals, as much as 10% of staff are out sick after contracting the omicron variant, heaping further stress on their exhausted colleagues as 18% of ICU beds in the county are now occupied by people stricken with the respiratory illness. She said the county's testing positivity rate has reached 35%.
“It's the third time we’ve elevated the Covid-19 threat level to red,” Hidalgo said at a press conference. “The first time we went to red is because we were in many ways helpless. We didn’t have vaccines, but now we are at red unfortunately because of a lack of action among those who are refusing to get vaccinated, and they are ending up in our hospitals.”
Red, or Level 1, is the county's highest Covid-threat level and calls for unvaccinated people to avoid contact with others as much as possible.
With omicron-fueled case counts reaching record levels across the U.S., epidemiologists say data suggests the variant is more contagious but less severe than the delta variant that gripped the country in the late summer and fall.
Still, the University of Texas Covid-19 Modeling Consortium predicts by late January people hospitalized with omicron in the state will exceed its record of more than 14,200 Covid-19 hospitalizations set a year ago.
Another worrisome development with children just returning to their schools from winter break—as of Monday afternoon 389 Texas children are hospitalized with Covid, state data shows.
Democrat Beto O’Rourke — a former El Paso congressman, U.S. Senate and presidential candidate, who is running for governor this year against incumbent Republican Governor Greg Abbott — says Abbott’s “anti-public health order that prohibits schools from requiring masks in the classroom” is to blame for the state’s surge of serious pediatric cases.
“While Texas is sending more children to the emergency room for Covid than any other state, Governor Abbott continues to interfere with schools and local leaders who are trying to do their job to keep their communities safe,” O’Rourke wrote in a Jan. 6 op-ed.
After facing backlash from fellow Republicans for imposing business shutdown and mask orders early in the pandemic, Abbott used the advent of vaccines to turn his Covid policy on its head.
Stressing the “path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates,” Abbott has also barred all entities in the state, including private businesses, from compelling anyone to get a vaccine who objects “for any reason of personal conscience, based on a religious belief, or for medical reasons, including prior recovery from Covid-19.”
In addition, he has endorsed Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawsuits against the Biden administration challenging its vaccine mandates for employees of large businesses, federal contractors and federally funded health care facilities.
Last week, Abbott sued Biden and Defense Department officials to stop them from requiring Texas National Guard troops to get vaccinated.
Paxton has also taken numerous school districts to court for forcing students and staff to wear masks in defiance of Abbott’s decree.
Both Abbott and Paxton are in their second four-year terms and up for reelection this year. Both are early favorites to win crowded Republican primaries in March and retain their positions in the November general election.
Despite Abbott's opposition to federal vaccine mandates, on Dec. 31 he asked the feds to deploy medical personnel to hospitals in some major cities to shore up understaffing, open Covid testing sites in five of the state's most populous counties, including Harris, and provide monoclonal antibodies for treatment at infusion centers of people with mild to moderate cases
The governor's request came days after he accused Biden of hoarding antibody treatments and cutting off the supply to Texas.
This political sniping is not diminishing the Federal Emergency Management Agency's support of Texas, as the agency plans to soon open six Covid testing sites in the state.
With her change of the Covid-19 threat level Monday, Hidalgo also announced Harris County, in partnership with Spring Independent School District, a district just north of Houston, is opening up its 10th testing site Tuesday at a high school football stadium.
"It will be open for at least the next two weeks until a FEMA site opens up also in the same area that will have even more capacity to help," she said.
The virus has killed 75,287 Texans, as tracked by the state health services department.