Texas Tribune demographics reporter Alexa Ura sat down with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo for a discussion on the impact of the novel coronavirus outbreak on one of the state’s largest counties and how her office has responded.
Here's a look at some of Hidalgo’s responses to questions during the interview.
What do we know about the state and local stay-at-home orders so far? How have they impacted Harris County residents and businesses?
- Hidalgo’s “Stay Home-Work Safe” order was issued on March 24 and was recently extended to April 30. Asked about the thought process behind the order, she said, “We have tried to be proactive, and we hope that by taking those steps we will avoid the worst of what other communities have had to face.”
- “I hope that we took this step early enough,” she added, recognizing that in the face of increasing morbidity and mortality rates coupled with limited testing resources and incomplete data that the biggest tool her office has right now is social distancing. “In many ways we are fighting a ghost,” Hidalgo said.
- On the subject of Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent directive telling Texans to stay at home through April, Hidalgo said that it was “important and necessary because ultimately our boundaries are porous,” making such a measure necessary to better protect residents in her county. She noted that she and her office are in the process of evaluating the measures in the county’s orders to ensure they are not in conflict with the statewide order. Still, she would like to view the governor’s order as “a floor and not a ceiling,” in terms of future responsive measures.
In response to questions about how religious activities — which were designated as essential in the statewide order — might impact the effectiveness of the county’s social distancing efforts, Hidalgo said that she was encouraged by the example that many faith leaders in her community are setting and their willingness to adapt to the current moment.
How is the county responding to the lack of hospital and personal protective equipment?
- “We know that we have limited supply, and that’s a challenge,” Hidalgo said. “So our No. 1 priority is to avoid crossing the threshold where our hospital system is overwhelmed,” and she emphasized the need for county residents to continue adhering to the state and local orders.
- Hidalgo also expressed concern about the limited number of hospital beds in her county, a number of which will be needed for cases unrelated to COVID-19. In a worst-case scenario, she mentioned that field hospitals would be built out to help local hospitals manage their surge capacities.
- Hidalgo also said that her office is working with local businesses and organizations to find creative solutions to equipment shortages — including 3-D printing — and that “a deep sense of gratitude and admiration” for health care workers motivates her to do as much as possible to help them combat this illness.
What about the economic impact this outbreak is having on individual citizens?
- “I don't think any of us fully grasp the economic impact that this will ultimately have,” Hidalgo said. “We’re all trying to make sense of it.” On the subject of whether her office is prepared to formalize the cancellation of evictions in Harris County, Hidalgo said, "I am prepared, if necessary, to sign an order where I would be able to functionally achieve the same results [as the local Justice of the Peace],” whose office has effectively canceled evictions by not hearing those cases. Hidalgo also noted that she is prepared to use such a measure to provide county residents with such relief, “for as long as the crisis continues.”
- In response to a question about how the outbreak has impacted the way her office is thinking about and addressing underlying inequality, Hidalgo said, “I recognize that there’s such huge inequality and that begins pretty much at birth, and now ... we are simply reacting trying to keep things from getting worse.”
What can local governments do to address the emotional stress and anxiety brought on by the outbreak?
- Hidalgo noted that there are resources available to people who are experiencing anxiety and/or other forms of emotional distress in response to the outbreak, including the Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD’s 24/7 support line (1-833-986-1919) as well as their online COVID-19 resources.
- “We all feel the uncertainty of this moment,” Hidalgo said. “It’s an anxiety-provoking situation ... and [yet] the silver lining, the beauty of it is that ... each of us has the power to make a difference in this epidemic,” as she emphasized social distancing.
- Hidalgo said she hears countless stories regarding people’s financial, emotional and health-related concerns. “Frankly, what is all going to help us all breathe easy is our ability to get over this virus as soon as possible,” she said.
The interview was streamed on the Tribune’s website, Facebook page and Twitter, as well as by our media partners at KPRC2 and KXAN, to a live audience of more than 8,000 viewers.
This virtual event is presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, Comcast Internet Essentials, Lone Star College and NRG. Media support is provided by KXAN and KPRC2.
Tribune events are also supported through contributions from our founding investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.