Update March 24 at 11:58 a.m.:
Waller County Judge said in a Facebook post that his county does not intend to issue a similar order to that issued by Judge Hidalgo this morning but he strongly encourages all county residents to stay at home if possible and follow orders issued by Gov. Greg Abbott last week.
Fort Bend County Judge KP George has announced that he will be providing a COVID-19 related update at 4:30 p.m. this afternoon.
Originally posted March 24 at 11 a.m.:
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced a stay at home order for all of Harris County Tuesday morning as part of the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The order is set to go through Apr. 3 to match the timeframe for Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s emergency declaration which was issued last week and is based on advice from medical experts, Hidalgo said.
“What these experts, leaders and people in the front line tell us is that, if we keep going at the rate [we are] we will be in the situation that some of these countries like Italy is at,” Hidalgo said.
Italy has had 63,927 cases of disease caused by the novel coronavirus with 9,077 deaths reported as of March 24 at 10 a.m. Italy is currently locked down and is suffering a lack of healthcare resources including personnel and equipment, according to various global media outlets.
Hidalgo said she and other county officials consulted with medical professionals at the University of Texas and the chief executives of hospitals at the Texas Medical Center. Models provided by UT project rapid spread of the virus, she said. The CEOs indicated that they are seeing an exponential number of patients coming to hospitals for treatment for novel coronavirus symptoms and are concerned about the local hospital system being overwhelmed.
Hidalgo said another indicator of the need to increase measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 is the results of Monday’s testing at the county’s two new testing centers. Both centers tested the 250 people they can on a daily basis during their first day of operations, she said. Continued operation of those facilities is dependent on the supply of testing materials and protective equipment for health workers, she said.
“As I have been mentioning for the past ten days or so, we are relying on the federal government to supply us [with items needed to keep these testing centers operational],” Hidalgo said.
Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, CEO of Harris County Health, said the order could mean the difference between keeping the COVID-19 outbreak manageable or seeing an overwhelming situation such as has occurred in China and Italy from the disease.
The order applies through Harris County and goes into effect tonight at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday evening. The decision to issue the order was announced at an 8:15 a.m. press conference Tuesday morning that included Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and area health officials.
The order requires that residents:
The order does not mean that the county and city are being locked down, Turner said. Essential businesses such as fuel stations, restaurants that can provide non-dine-in options, medical offices and others will remain open.
“We have said over and over that the grocery stores are not shutting down and they are not,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
Turner said the order was not called a "shelter in place" order because those types of orders in the region are reserved for mass shootings, chemical spills and weather events and the COVID-19 pandemic is a unique issue.
Hidalgo said businesses and workers that are considered essential are identified by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency which is a daughter agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. A memo from CISA describing those essential workers can be found here, but can be summarized as public health workers, law enforcement and other first responders, food and agriculture workers, electricity industry personnel, petroleum workers, natural gas and propane providers, water and wastewater infrastructure maintainers, transportation and logistics workers public works operators, information technology professionals, communications professionals – including news reporters to keep the public informed – most government workers, hazardous materials managers, certain manufacturing positions, financial services and national defense personnel.
Turner said those conducting essential travel to obtain groceries or other necessary items must exercise social distancing and maintain at least six feet of distance from one another.
“With respect to your food supply chain, those things are essential,” Turner said.
Enforcement of the order will be undertaken at the discretion of law enforcement officials, Hidalgo said. Violations of the order may be subject to fines and could result in up to 180 days in jail, she added.
When asked if he thought the order was going too far and not in line with his previous comments that the city was not going to be shut down, Turner said he would rather be criticized for doing too much than for not doing enough and that inaction causing residents’ health and safety to be put at risk. He added that he felt the order keeps the Greater Houston region functioning while minimizing risk.
The official number of cases in the county is increasing, said Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health.
Dr. David Persse, health authority of the city of Houston, said officials know there are more cases than are being reported as officially diagnosed. Officials have repeatedly said that 80% of individuals who contract the virus will only suffer flu-like symptoms that can be treated at home. Testing availability has also been limited due to a lack of testing supplies both locally and nationwide. All ages are at risk of contracting the disease, officials said, but those with underlying health conditions and who are elderly are at significantly more risk than those who are younger and in generally better health. However, they did say that by following the order and good social distancing practices, the impact of the virus could be mitigated.
“We can defeat this virus. We can prevent the devastating impact of this virus by coming together by staying apart,” Porsa said.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct spelling of Dr. Esmaeil Porsa's name.