Coronavirus expert Dr. McDeavitt: Houston is not at ‘DEFCON 1 but it is a 3’

In the past days, the United States has set new records for coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and COVID-19 deaths. But how bad is the situation in the Houston region? The editorial board spoke with Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine, to find out. The following is an edited conversation.

How many alarm bells should be going off?

This is not DEFCON 1 but it is a 3. Hospitals are getting stressed. They are opening auxiliary ICUs. I think we will continue to surge for the next several weeks. We have to plan as if we will see the July levels. The hospital census numbers are going up but are still at half of the July surge levels. We aren’t there yet, but it is heading in that direction. We can take care of COVID cases and all the usual hospital non-COVID patients without a problem. If you are sick, you should absolutely come to a hospital. We have room in the hospital. Over the next six to eight weeks, though, we could be in a serious spot if the community does not get this under control.

At least we have the vaccine in sight, right?

We currently are experiencing a well-earned and well-deserved euphoria around vaccines. It is good and welcome news. Getting to herd immunity requires vaccinating a lot of people. With the initial tranche of vaccines, we’ll be to about 6 percent of the population nationally, and nowhere close to herd immunity. We can’t let the euphoria over vaccines cause us to take our eye off the ball. Late spring and summer, it will be a different story — we will see things start to improve.

What can we do right now?

Take personal responsibility for wearing a mask, physical distancing and avoiding indoor gatherings. We are on the cusp of the December holidays. Everyone needs to have a holiday plan in the Houston area. The safest thing to celebrate with members of your owe household. Period. That won’t happen for everybody. Alternatively, carefully engineer your holiday. Eat outside and distanced. Pay careful attention to viral control practices. Or you can form an NBA style holiday bubble. Baylor has posted a very deliberate process for self-quarantining and testing. If you and your family can commit fully to bubble development it is a safe option. You have to have a plan.

Is Houston doing better than other places?

Our next-door neighbor’s house has flooded. The house across the street has flooded. And ours might flood next. You can look at a breakdown of Texas by county on the University of Texas School of Public Health website. We are better off than a lot of other places but the virus is increasing here at an alarming rate. With a possible Thanksgiving surge and going into a holiday season, hoping for the best is not adequate.

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