Published Jul 27, 2021 by Maggie Martin
After months of decline in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, medical experts warn the increasingly prevalent Delta variant - coupled with slowing vaccination rates - pose a threat to the greater Houston region.
A panel of Houston leaders in the medical and business community, who meet regularly to discuss the ongoing pandemic, discussed their growing concern and recommendations during a webinar hosted by the Partnership on July 27.
Participants were Dr. Eric Boerwinkle, Dean of UTHealth School of Public Health; Marc Watts, President of The Friedkin Group; Dr. James McDeavitt, Executive Vice President and Dean of Clinical Affairs, at Baylor College of Medicine; and Jennifer Kiger, Chief of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response with Harris County Public Health. Partnership President and CEO Bob Harvey moderated the discussion.
“Pandemic of the Unvaccinated”
"Our best tool against the Delta variant is to be vaccinated," said Harvey. That's the message health care leaders also underscored throughout the conversation.
While experts say they're also seeing so-called breakthrough cases of COVID-19 in vaccinated people, the fourth wave is what many - including President Biden's chief medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, - are calling "a pandemic of the unvaccinated." The majority of new COVID-19 positive cases hospitalized are unvaccinated individuals. At a national level, about 97% of all COVID hospitalizations are of unvaccinated individuals.
Dr. McDeavitt argued that labeling the pandemic as one primarily affecting those who aren't vaccinated isn't the best approach. Instead, this is a pandemic of people who cannot be vaccinated, as well as of health care providers, hospitals and businesses who are run down by the length of the fight against the virus and who crave stability.
"It's a pandemic for everybody," said Dr. McDeavitt, who also called on businesses to encourage their employees to get vaccinated.
Kiger reported 44% of Harris County's total population is vaccinated, "which is not enough."
Fourth Wave is Different
Unlike previous waves of the coronavirus, the current surge is more predominate among younger age groups. Dr. Boerwinkle presented data showing adults 20 to 39 years old are the largest group with COVID-19 positive cases.
Cases also continue to climb among children. Dr. Boerwinkle said there were more than 23,000 reported pediatric COVID-19 cases in the past week in the U.S., or about 16% of all cases in the country.
The fourth wave, explained Dr. Boerwinkle, is also having a different impact on the health care system.
“We’re not seeing the incredible pressure on health care that we saw particularly in the second and third wave, but it’s important that we stay vigilant," he urged.
Mask Recommendations Changing
The discussion occurred just before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention partially reversed its policy on wearing masks indoors. According to The New York Times, the CDC is now recommending that some vaccinated people wear masks in some public indoor spaces and in schools. It was a move Houston health leaders echoed in their recommendations.
“Avoid crowded indoor areas and spaces," urged Dr. Boerwinkle. "If you must go, just please wear a mask. That’s true whether you are vaccinated or are not vaccinated.”
At least a couple of organizations are ahead.
Kiger, who's been working closely with schools and businesses to provide onsite vaccinations and other COVID-19-related resources, said Harris County Public Health also encourages those who are fully vaccinated to continue wearing masks indoors "to mitigate the peak of the new wave."
Watts later added that The Friedkin Group recently implemented a new policy requiring employees to provide proof of vaccination in order to go maskless in the office.
Watts laid out how The Friedkin Group has taken a proactive approach to keeping employees safe in recent weeks.
“We’re doing everything within our power to encourage vaccinations and provide positive reinforcement," he said.
Watts said his organization has implemented measures to incentivize those vaccinations, including financial incentives, onsite testing and time off work to get vaccinated.
The Friedkin Group is also looking ahead to how the fourth wave could affect the work environment, noting The Friedkin Group is considering a new flexible schedule post-Labor Day, but leadership is still discussing what that looks like.
"There's a lot of uncertainty in the business environment."
To view a recording of this presentation, click here. To learn more about membership with the Greater Houston Partnership click here, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. New resources around vaccines, the reopening of worksites and more can be found on the Partnership’s COVID-19 Resources page. See the latest COVID-19 data from TMC on the Partnership's Restart Houston Monitoring Dashboard.