Harris County returns to highest COVID-19 threat level, citing staffing shortages

County Judge Lina Hidalgo says the state has sent nurses to the region during previous COVID spikes, but that more won’t be coming.

By Jill Ament & Alexandra HartJanuary 13, 2022 2:44 pm, , ,

With COVID cases still rapidly increasing, many Texas counties are calling for more precautions. The latest is the state’s most populous, Harris County. Although health experts like those at the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium expect this wave to peak soon, hospitals could remain strained for weeks to come.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo spoke to Texas Standard about the steps Harris County is taking. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Case counts have risen enough in Harris County that you’ve raised the threat level to Red again. But what are some of the things you’re seeing and hearing about the situation there?

Judge Lina Hidalgo: The main challenges are twofold. You hear about the cases, but we have to focus as well on the hospitalizations. So right now in Harris County, over 20% of the beds in our ICU are taken up by COVID-19 patients, which of course puts a strain on our system. And you have to remember, we serve a whole region. And that displaces the heart attacks and strokes and the folks with appendicitis. So we want to make sure that those that are staffed are available for everyone.

You’ve also mentioned schools, and I know you made your latest announcement at a school. Why did you do that and what’s your plan to help schools through this latest surge?

I’m hearing from parents and teachers, if there’s somebody that that’s truly stressed to the very edge. We see the need for rapid tests in our schools. We just purchased basically every test kit we could get our hands on, which amounts to about 85,000 test kits. Most of those have two tests each, and then we approve funding for more to give to our public schools. And that way, any kids that that come into contact with another kid that has COVID, they need to stay home.

And another thing we’ve done is request nurses. So we just approved about $42 million to 664 nurses to Harris County. And the obvious next question is, where are these nurses coming from? And that’s why we’re all in it together, because we shouldn’t be in this race about who can get the nurses and who can get the test kits, the solutions entirely in our hands.

Do you feel like you’ve received the state and federal assistance that you need or are you hoping for more or at this point? Are you really just focused on what the community can do in Harris County to make things better?

We have received assistance throughout all of this. Recently, the states and Harris County, about 300 nurses. And then they sent nurses to other regions as well. And then, they’re competing with other states. But they also said we’re not sending any more. Full stop. So this is where we had to go find our own nurses. We had to do the same thing over the summer when we also needed 600. And it came from hospitals just showing us numbers and saying, ‘look, we just do not have the staff.’

And then the federal government as well is working on the rapid test kits. And the funding they have sent – our congressional delegation has been key to this as well for the American Rescue Plan. And back then, CARES. We’ve been able to use that for all kinds of programs; homelessness, tackling the increase in domestic violence, small businesses, you name it, rental assistance, etc.

Now the other thing that everyone could do that is not necessarily happening is united communications, [telling people] – get your vaccine, get your booster and don’t into the mystery in any way. Because every time politics gets in the way, it makes it hard for us to do what we need to do. I never expect not to be on the front lines. But certainly I can sense, especially the challenges of mixed messaging.

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