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Houston region survives Labor Day weekend without COVID spike

Houston appears to have survived the Labor Day weekend without a COVID-19 spike, according to the most recent data, a hopeful sign as the area faces looming challenges posed by children returning to school, more reopening of the economy and cooling temperatures.

More than 2½ weeks after the weekend concluded, the period in which new cases and hospitalizations typically appear, the data shows a continuing slow decline in the key metrics that public health officials monitor — case counts, hospital admissions, positive test rates, spread of the disease. Officials had feared a deja vu of the spike in such numbers that followed Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

“We’re at the sweet spot when you would expect to see a post-holiday bump, and we’re not seeing it — which is great news,” said Dr. Marc Boom, president of Houston Methodist. “An impact could still show in the next week — we’ve learned to never say never — but so far we’re seeing no hint of an increase.”

But Boom and others warned about complacency, urging people to not abandon the social distancing behavior that brought the area back from dangerous coronavirus levels in June and July. They cited new surges of cases in Europe, where governments are scrambling to contain without resorting to spring-style lockdowns.

Of course, the Houston area’s numbers are still too high, still well above the levels before the summer spike. Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, said the decline in case counts is making it easier to find hot spots in the county, but the numbers need to continue coming down before contact tracing is most effective. Contact tracing attempts to stop an outbreak’s chain of transmission by identifying and isolating those who come into contact with people infected.

Fall and winter will present more challenges. For one, coronaviruses transmit better in cooler, drier climates. For another, businesses will become more crowded as Gov. Greg Abbott continues to loosen restrictions on maximum occupancy. Last and probably most importantly, the resumption of in-person K-12 education will expose millions to the virus previously sequestered from it.

“Schools will be the No. 1 challenge,” said Bill McKeon, president of the Texas Medical Center. “We know children are major carriers of viruses, including this one, even if it doesn’t result in severe disease. That’s why we need to get cases to a level where it’s safer for everyone when children return.”

Dr. Paul Klotman, president of Baylor College of Medicine, agreed that school safety should be the top priority. “Hopefully we can reopen schools before we reopen bars,” he said.

Early returns from schools that have resumed classes have found no widespread outbreaks, and pediatric hospitals are reporting no increase in cases.

Based on the current rate of the novel coronavirus’ spread, the number of cases should drop significantly by the time HISD reopens Oct. 19, according to Houston scientists. The public health target for opening schools is 200 cases a day, a rate at which contact tracing is not as easily overwhelmed.

The Houston area’s case count was 725 on Thursday, compared with last week’s daily average of 838. The current seven-day rolling average is 535.

Other area COVID-19 metrics still trending positively despite the Labor Day weekend, according to the Texas Medical Center dashboard:

 The virus reproductive value (Rt), which measures whether the disease’s spread is increasing or declining, was 0.70 on Thursday, down from 1.5 from June to mid-July. The figure refers to the average number of people to which each infected individual transmits the virus. More than 1 means the spread is growing; less than 1 means it’s declining. The number has been mostly below 1 since the beginning of August.

 The seven-day average COVID-19 testing positive rate is 3.4, consistent with last week’s daily average.

 Medical center hospitals admitted 80 new COVID-19 patients Thursday, down from last week’s daily average of 92 hospitalizations per day.

“It looks like Houstonians followed guidelines — wore masks, maintained proper distances,” said Dr. Chris Amos, a Baylor biostatistician. “Now, we need to keep it up.”

But José-Miguel Yamal, a biostatistician and data scientist at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, noted that although there hasn’t been an uptick in cases yet, Labor Day-related cases could still emerge involving younger people infected over the holiday weekend later passing it on to older people.

At Texas Children’s Hospital, a demand for testing is the only COVID-19 spike since some schools began resuming in-person classes, said Dr. Brent Kaziny, the hospital’s ER medical director. He said that’s to be expected since schools typically require such testing before a child who became sick can return to classes.

Kaziny said such tests are up about 50 percent at Texas Children’s in recent weeks. He said there has been no increase in actual cases and that the hospital’s positive test rate is still low.

All five Houston-area hospitals that provide care to pediatric patients are reporting no change in the number of such COVID-19 admissions, said Darrell Pile, CEO of the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council. Those hospitals are providing care to 29 children with the disease, including nine in intensive care. In September so far, those numbers have ranged from a low of 19 hospitalized and three in intensive care, to a high of 46 and 13, respectively.

“The data looks good,” said Klotman of Baylor. “If people can keep it up for another three to six months — wearing masks, avoiding crowds — then we get a vaccine, we should be OK.”

todd.ackerman@chron.com

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