State of COVID-19: Harris County officials stop counting positive cases, but what happens now?

Rosie Nguyen Image
Tuesday, October 17, 2023
Counts of positive COVID-19 cases stops in Harris County
Harris County health officials have stopped counting positive coronavirus cases three years after a global pandemic was declared.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- Three years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, positivity rates (which used to dominate news headlines daily) are no longer being measured by local county health departments. So, what does this say about the state of COVID-19 now?

The CDC stopped tracking the number of excessive COVID-19 deaths after the month of September, which is described as "the difference between observed numbers of deaths in specific time periods and expected number of deaths in the same time periods."

Health officials in Harris County said they are no longer tracking positivity rates. However, the number of newly reported COVID-19 cases, ICU bed usage, and hospital admissions are still viewable on the Harris County COVID-19 Data Hub.

Yet, experts said the best way to track COVID-19 viral levels in our communities has been through wastewater. They're using levels from July 6, 2020 (the peak of the first COVID-19 wave) as the 100% base level measurement.

"So many people were testing at home, and few were going to the testing sites. So we were hesitant to put a whole lot of trust into what those numbers were showing up. Wastewater is a reliable predictor. When we see numbers in the wastewater go up, we see numbers at the hospital increase about two weeks later," Dr. David Persse, chief medical officer for the City of Houston, said.

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On Monday, the Houston Health Department reported the wastewater virus load for COVID-19 is at 73 percent of the baseline, down from 90% last week. Officials said these are not the lowest numbers they've seen during the pandemic, but they've been seeing a steady decline.

"I think what happened is we had this massive surge of COVID-19 that went under the radar throughout the summer because no one was really testing. But now, we have a lot of built-up immunity, and we're also starting with vaccines appropriate for this current variant in circulation," Dr. Luis Ostrosky, chief of infectious disease at UTHealth at Memorial Hermann, said.

ABC13 spoke to several people in downtown Houston to get a pulse of the public's perspective on the virus.

"I think a lot of people are just kind of over it at this point. Nobody really sees COVID for what it was when it first came here. I think all of that has been pushed behind us," David Martinez said.

"People were kind of scared and didn't want to go out. Now, I think people are just trying to resume back to normal. I'm particularly not very concerned. I'm trying not to live in fear again," Renan Gongora said.

Persse said it's unsurprising that the public's perception of the virus has eased up. In fact, it's something they expected, as vaccines made a game-changing impact on controlling the spread and outcomes of COVID-19.

"We are at a point where many people from the public see COVID as something similar to the flu. But let's not forget that the flu also kills people every year. If it's being compared with the flu, then the vaccine needs to be considered equally important as the flu shot," Persse said.

While the flu can cause deadly lung infections, Persse said COVID-19 could target any organ system in the body.

"People who die from the flu predominantly die from pneumonia. With COVID, we've seen many people also die from infections to the brain, nervous system, heart, liver, and kidneys," Persse said. "I hate to make predictions. But COVID is definitely a more aggressive virus. I think what we will see over the years if COVID takes more Americans' lives annually than the flu will."

READ MORE: Flu, RSV starting to circulate but cases remain lower than last year: CDC

Currently, Harris County doctors are seeing an average of four to five COVID-19 deaths per week.

"These are predominantly older people with lots of medical problems. For a while, we had seen that most of the folks who were dying were people who never got vaccinated. That has now changed, and it's about a 40/60 split between vaccinated and unvaccinated," Persse said.

Experts said this doesn't mean we should stop worrying about COVID-19 altogether. They still see seasonal surges of the virus, typically around Spring Break, late summer, and mid-winter. If a variant mutates faster than our vaccines can keep up, it could cause concern.

"We're still in that race. Fortunately, the vaccine we have right now covers all variants that have emerged. The people who designed the vaccine made a really good guess this year. But it's not by chance. It's from really studying up on what's happening in other parts of the world," Ostrosky said.

READ MORE: 4M Americans have gotten latest COVID shot -- on par with last fall's vaccine rollout

That is the reason why other Houstonians said they're still cautious about the virus.

"My concern is at a mid-level because we still have casualties. People are still dying from this horrible disease," Adrian Zamora said.

"I still feel like we should take care of ourselves and try to stay as safe as possible. Be mindful of yourself, especially your hygiene and being in open places. You never know when it can come back and strikethrough," Eimy Charles, another Houston resident, said.

Ostrosky recommends getting a booster if it's been at least four months since you got your last vaccine or contracted COVID-19. Remember always to mask up, wash your hands, social distance, and practice safe public health practices if you're experiencing symptoms.

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