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Fort Bend County Judge KP George speaks during a news conference Oct. 1 at Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land. (Photo by Stefan Modrich)

By STEFAN MODRICH

smodrich@fortbendstar.com

In response to a surge COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates in Fort Bend County and  Greater Houston, County Judge KP George announced during a news conference Wednesday that he would be elevating the county’s coronavirus threat level from orange — “moderate to significant risk” —  to red, or “high community risk.”

But with that risk and stern warning came a silver lining. Dr. Jacqueline Minter, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department, said if it is approved, some Fort Bend County frontline healthcare workers could receive their vaccine “as early as next week.”

“This vaccine is going to focus on those that are high-risk,” Minter said. “Those in the healthcare delivery system, those in hospitals and long-term care facilities, as well as EMS (personnel).

Those will be the first ones to be offered the vaccine.” As for when the general public will have access to the vaccine, Minter said to expect a window of 6-9 months. “There is definitely light at the end of this tunnel,” Minter said.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reviewing vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, which Minter said should be approved in the coming weeks if the FDA grants an emergency-use authorization for the vaccines.

George wrote in a letter to residents explaining the change to the county’s guidelines that “as the holiday season kicked off, we are seeing alarming trends of positive cases, hospitalizations, and other critical factors going in the wrong direction.”

“My number one job is to save lives and protect our citizens,” George said. “That is what we are doing by elevating the threat level today.”

Cases began to increase steadily in Fort Bend since the beginning of November. On Nov. 27, the most recent data point following the Thanksgiving holiday, 462 cases were reported, and the spike continued into December, with 4,417 new cases added since Dec. 1, as of Wednesday. Dec. 3’s total of 1,285 cases is a new single-day record for the county, the highest total since 859 cases were reported on Aug 14. Minter said the county has conducted interviews and done contact tracing with residents who tested positive for COVID-19.

A common response, she said, was that people were gathering more, even if those gatherings were not necessarily large groups. She said the county will be able to approximate next month whether or not the results from any cases that may have been connected to gatherings that took place on Thanksgiving.

“What we are seeing now is reflective of behaviors that occurred 10 to 21 days prior,” Minter said. “And the rate of growth in numbers represents widespread and uncontrolled transmission of SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

She said there has also been an increase in testing and test positivity, as well as an increase in hospitalizations and ICU bed patients as a result of COVID-19.

Minter also noted the same preventative measures the county has advocated regarding the coronavirus have also been effective in slowing the spread of the flu, as county residents have been getting their seasonal flu shots. “

This further demonstrates that our behavior does have consequences, both positive and unwanted,” Minter said. “We know COVID fatigue is real. We know you’re tired, we’re tired too, but being tired and stopping (adherence to health guidelines) has its consequences.”

George reiterated that positive developments such a vaccine on the horizon is not a reason for people to let their guard down, he said he will not be issuing any new restrictions like curfews.

County judges have been limited in the scope of their authority by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott since April, when Abbott decided to not allow local officials to issue COVID-19 restrictions stricter than that of the state’s.

“There is no shutdown order,” George said. “This is actually a guideline for our citizens so that we can all work together.”

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