Harris County extends “Stay Home, Work Safe” order, issues order to release nonviolent jail inmates

By R. HANS MILLER | TIMES SENIOR REPORTER
Posted 3/31/20

In a March 31 press conference, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was extending the county’s “Stay Home, Work Safe” order to April 30 and would be issuing an order that day …

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Harris County extends “Stay Home, Work Safe” order, issues order to release nonviolent jail inmates

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In a March 31 press conference, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was extending the county’s “Stay Home, Work Safe” order to April 30 and would be issuing an order that day to release nonviolent inmates from the Harris County Jail. Both measures were taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the Novel Coronavirus.

“It is not the time right now to scale back in our containment measures – if anything, it’s the time to double down because our rates continue to grow very, very rapidly, and we’ve not yet gotten to a point of flattening the curve,” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo said she was proud of the community for coming together to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and would continue to seek the advice of medical professionals and monitor the disease’s progress in other communities for information that would help her and other community leaders make decisions regarding how to move forward.

Tracking trends

At the time of the press conference, Harris County’s Public Health Department reported a total of 680 cases countywide, including those in the city of Houston. Of those, 377 were in the city of Houston while 303 were in other parts of the county. About 49% of patients infected were male and 51% female with patients over 60 being the largest age group affected. A total of six people had died countywide, including in the city of Houston.

“I always want to qualify these numbers because we recognize that whatever number we give you, there are more cases that are out there that we have yet to identify because of the lack of testing,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

The Greater Houston area has struggled along with the rest of the country in obtaining enough testing supplies and protective equipment for medical staff, Hidalgo said. Shipments from the federal government continue to come, Hidalgo said. That allows the county’s two testing centers to test 250 people per day.

Houston has been able to open two testing facilities within the city, Turner said. The centers at Butler and Delmar stadiums have about the same testing capacity as the county centers and Turner said the city has been able to procure additional equipment recently.

The Harris County Commissioners Court approved expedited purchasing of medical supplies to address the COVID-19 pandemic during its March 19 meeting. The approval allows a $15 million fund set aside for land purchases to be temporarily used to purchase medical supplies and authorized policy makers withing county government to develop processes for fast payment for medical supplies, including N95 medical masks which have been difficult to find nationwide.

“As everyone knows, the N95s are the largest items that we cannot find or locate. We have found some, but we haven’t been able to negotiate with all these vendors because they want their money up front,” said County Purchasing Agent DeWight Dopslauf.

Dr. Mark Boom, CEO and president of Houston Methodist hospital, said the hospitals at the Texas Medical Center have been monitoring data related to the spread of Novel Coronavirus in the area and they show concern if the community does not take measures to reduce the spread of the illness.

“When we look at modeling and we look at our own internal data – which shows significant increases in the number of patients we’re caring for – those models really are tracking along with the New York City models,” Boom said.

Greater Houston has advantages that New York City did not, Boom said. The region has instituted orders to reduce community spread earlier in the process, and that can have a significant impact on whether the spread of the disease continues to be manageable, he said.

“Ticking time bomb”

Hidalgo said one way the county is working to ensure the disease is managed is by releasing nonviolent inmates from the Harris County Jail. The release will allow about 1,000 of the jail’s inmates – totaling about 8,000 – from the jail.

“We know that the Harris County Jail is a ticking time bomb. We already have a case in the jail; we’re likely to see more in the coming days,” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo said releasing the inmates from jail would minimize the number of inmates that might contract COVID-19 – about two dozen already have symptoms – and would save intensive care unit beds for patients. Keeping inmates in close quarters where it is not possible to socially isolate them to keep them from getting sick also puts about 3,000 staff that guard, feed and treat inmates at higher risk, and subsequently those employee’s families, she added.

Those with prior vilent crime convictions, are accused of crimes that involve violence, are accused of burglary of a homestead or a third driving while intoxicated charge will not be released, Hidalgo said.

CEO of Harris Health System CEO Dr. Esmaeil Porsa said jails are historically the epicenter of health disasters, including the AIDS epidemic in the 1970s and 1980s. Releasing nonviolent prisoners would allow the county to minimize the impact the poor social distancing conditions in the jail would have on the general population as workers get sick and inmates unnecessarily take up ICU beds.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Department’s Pretrial Services group will screen inmates to verify that they are nonviolent, Hidalgo said. Those released will have ankle monitors and other monitoring implemented as needed to ensure they keep their court dates and face justice, she added.

“I want to make a few points here, first of which is those being released are not being absolved of their alleged nonviolent crimes – of course everybody has not been convicted, these are folks who’ve been accused of crimes – but if found guilty once they face a judge … those who have been found guilty of theose nonviolent crimes will still face justice, will still face time [in jail] if necessary. Second, is that the order is consistent with the governor’s executive order that says no violent criminals should be released and that’s the point of this [order].” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo said she expects the case reviews needed to identify those eligible for release may take about three or four days.

“I don’t feel that we can wait any longer to outline exactly who needs to be out,” Hidalgo said.

About 4,000 ICU beds are available across the region, Turner said.

Keeping measures in place and adding more orders to mitigate the spread is the best way to mitigate the spread of the disease, Hidalgo said.

Turner said that he had been told by Dr. Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine that Hotez expects the peak of the virus to hit Texas around May 2. However, if social distancing and adherence to the orders are not consistent by the public, that date could be pushed back as much as another four weeks, Turner said.

“The singular goal is to block this virus such that it does not overwhelm our health care delivery system,” Turner said.

The doctors present at the press conference supported Hidalgo and Turner in their decision to continue with methods to reduce the spread of the virus. They also expressed appreciation for the community’s support of medical professionals working to address the pandemic.

“We stand fully behind [Hidalgo and Turner] in supporting this action of extending the order to the end of the month [of April],” Boom said.

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