Coronavirus In Greater Houston: Local Governments Can’t Stop Schools From Opening To Prevent COVID-19, Texas AG Says

It’s been 21 weeks since the coronavirus hit greater Houston.

By Paul Debenedetto, Matt Harab & Andrew SchneiderJuly 29, 2020 6:52 am, , , , ,

From Houston Public Media:

This story is part of Houston Public Media’s ongoing coronavirus coverage. To see our previous live coverage, click here.

Updated 12:44 p.m. CT Tuesday

Earlier this month, the Texas Education Agency said school districts could delay opening and keep state funding if local health officials ordered their closure.

But Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton says local health officials may not close schools unless people start getting sick from COVID-19.

Paxton’s legal guidance, issued Tuesday, was aimed squarely at places like Harris County, Bexar County, Travis County and others who’ve issued health orders closing school districts, per the TEA’s guidelines. The guidelines came after Gov. Greg Abbott signaled the state would be more flexible with opening requirements for local school districts.

But in a letter issued Tuesday, Paxton said local health authorities are limited by Texas statute in how they respond to the coronavirus, and that they may only order schools closed in the case of an existing outbreak, not to prevent a future outbreak.

“Government action, no matter how urgent or expedient it is believed to be, may not exceed the constitutional limitations that have been placed upon it by the People,” the letter reads. “We encourage local and school system officials to work together to make the best decision, within their authority under the law, to protect the health and safety of the residents of their jurisdictions.”

At Tuesday’s Harris County Commissioner’s Court Meeting, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia suggested looking into legal action against the state.

“There’s too much riding on this,” Garcia said. “The lives of children are riding on this.”

Robert Soard of the Harris County Attorney’s Office indicated he would consult with other counties on whether to coordinate with such a suit.

Updated 6:50 p.m. CT Monday

New data released Monday by the state of Texas suggests that the death toll in Harris County may be significantly higher than reported.

The Texas Department of Health and Human Services updated its COVID-19 dashboard to reflect 1,100 deaths in Harris County attributed to the coronavirus. By contrast, Harris County Public Health’s dashboard displays only 654 deaths — a difference of 446 people.

DSHS said it is now reporting COVID-19 fatality data based on whether the medical certifier attests on a death certificate that COVID-19 is a cause of death.

A spokeswoman for Harris County Public Health said the department was just informed of the discrepancy on Monday afternoon, and that it was still investigating the difference in numbers.

Original story below:

There is mounting evidence that Texas’ recent statewide face covering mandate has helped reduce the number of new COVID-19 cases across the state of Texas.

But new data suggests the state is not out of the woods yet: health statistics released Sunday show more than 5,000 people in Texas have now died from the coronavirus.

That’s 153 more deaths than the day before and 1,080 more than a week ago, according to the Texas Tribune. And that’s likely an undercount because of how many people who’ve died that were not tested for the virus, public health experts warn.

In Greater Houston, the Texas Medical Center reported a downward trend of COVID-19 hospitalizations, with 202 new hospitalizations reported Sunday, down from a high of 446 from earlier this month. And while hospitals are still using overflow capacity for intensive care, TMC officials don’t believe that capacity will be filled over the next two weeks if current trends continue.

And Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday announced 325 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, lower than recent days.

But there were also nine newly announced deaths related to the virus, bringing the total in Houston to 400.

Deaths are considered a lagging indicator, and as hospitalizations continue to decrease deaths are expected to drop as well.

While the number of new cases and hospitalizations is an encouraging sign, it’s too soon to say Houston numbers have plateaued, Turner said.

“Even though the number is low, you have to really look at that seven-day total,” Turner said. “A lot depends on when we get results back.”

Last week, the positivity rate in the city had been rising and peaked at 25.9%. That has seen a slight decrease, to 23%. But in some parts of the city, numbers are as high as 30%, according to Dr. David Persse, Houston’s health authority.

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