A Letter to the Business Community from the Partnership and Local Business and Health Care Leaders
We are writing in our capacities as leaders of the Greater Houston Partnership and as leaders of our respective Texas Medical Center institutions.
The situation in Houston with respect to COVID-19 and specifically the Delta variant is acute. This, the fourth wave of the current pandemic, is proving to be as severe as anything we have yet faced and does not yet show signs of peaking. You can view the latest data from the TMC here.
As you’ve no doubt read, the Delta variant is more transmissible (contagious) than the original virus and the previous variants – on the order of twice as transmissible. It is at least as virulent (harmful in its effect) as the earlier strains. The greatly increased transmissibility combined with equal or perhaps worse virulence has led to a severe outbreak among unvaccinated Houstonians. The large number of cases among the unvaccinated has contributed to a significant number of “breakthrough cases” among the vaccinated. While breakthrough cases tend to be much milder and typically do not lead to hospitalization, they too are transmissible and are contributing to the overall spread.
All of this has led to a critical situation in Houston hospitals. While the effects, system by system, are uneven, all of our local hospital systems are dealing with a strain on ICU capacity and a shortage of nurses and other medical staff.
What can you – what can we – do as business leaders in Houston? Without meaning to be presumptuous, we’d ask you to consider the following measures:
- Be a forceful champion for vaccination. Encourage, cajole, and incentivize your staff to be vaccinated and to have their families vaccinated. Address vaccine concerns with facts regarding safety and efficacy. The vaccines approved under emergency use authorizations (EUAs) in the United States have shown themselves to be remarkably safe and highly effective, even against the Delta variant. The current wave of hospitalizations is, to a large degree, a wave of unvaccinated people. Unfortunately, someone receiving their first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines today won’t be fully protected for five or six weeks, but vaccines are the ultimate answer to this virus.
- Begin giving consideration, if you haven’t already, to requiring vaccination of your staff (with appropriate religious and medical exceptions). We know that many of you are waiting for action by the FDA to move from EUA to full approval of one or both of the mRNA vaccines. Several of our medical institutions (specifically Houston Methodist, Memorial Hermann, and Baylor College of Medicine) have announced vaccination requirements. On August 6, United Airlines became the first major airline to require all of its employees to be vaccinated. Signaling an intent to move in this direction may motivate some staff to get ahead of the policy. But in any event, it may require actions by employers if we are to get the local vaccination rate above the 54-55 percent level (of eligible people) we are at currently in Harris County.
- Temporarily require masks for all indoor workspaces other than individual workspaces or other settings where full six-foot distancing can be maintained. Face coverings have proven to be an effective means of limiting spread in indoor settings. Worn correctly, over the nose and mouth, they both limit the transmission from infected individuals to others and provide a measure of protection to mask wearers who are not infected. The Delta variant is highly transmissible, as noted, and can be transmitted by unvaccinated and vaccinated (breakthrough) individuals, even if they are not symptomatic; however, there is no reason to believe that masks are not effective against the Delta variant. (It should be noted that COVID-19 symptoms associated with the Delta variant for vaccinated individuals often mimic those of a common head cold and are likely being left undiagnosed.)
- Temporarily reconsider any additional steps planned for bringing people back to the office in the next few weeks, as we know many were planning to significantly ramp up in-person work around Labor Day. We don’t know how long this fourth wave will run or how steep the back side of the curve will be. Until we see a clear indication of a substantial tapering of cases and hospitalizations, it is critical that we provide what protection we can to our staff while at the same time maintaining business continuity.
The current surge calls upon all of us across the community, including businesses, to take action to reverse the direction of the current wave and bring this virus to a manageable endemic level. We all believe we have a responsibility for protecting the health and safety of our employees in the workplace. While the responsibility clearly rests with each of us individually as employers, the benefit of joint action will be profound.
Amy Chronis, Chair, Greater Houston Partnership
Marc Watts, Chair COVID-19 Task Force, Greater Houston Partnership
Bob Harvey, President and CEO, Greater Houston Partnership
Dr. Marc Boom, President and CEO, Houston Methodist
Dr. David Callender, President and CEO, Memorial Hermann Health System
Dr. Paul Klotman, President CEO, Baylor College of Medicine
Doug Lawson, CEO, CHI St. Luke’s Health