With her second year in office coming to a close, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo made her second State of the County address Nov. 12 in a conversation with H-E-B President Scott McClelland hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership. (Screenshot courtesy Greater Houston Partnership)
Hidalgo said the county has seen a 40% increase in new cases of COVID-19 over the past few weeks along with a rise in hospitalizations and the testing positivity rate. The pandemic is far from over, she said.
“We are headed in the wrong direction,” Hidalgo said. “My concern is this is the result of half-measures by the state and federal government so far, and something has to change.”
Hidalgo expressed regret over having her efforts blocked earlier on in the pandemic by Gov. Greg Abbott when it came to several orders she tried to enforce, including an order requiring face coverings that was blocked by Abbott in April before he eventually went on to pass his own statewide mask order in July.
Although work on a vaccine is moving forward, Hidalgo said there is still uncertainty over how much longer it will be before one becomes widely available. In the meantime, she said she hopes a more comprehensive strategy will emerge at the federal level.
“If it doesn’t come from me because I no longer have the authority, if it doesn’t come from the state because of a lack of will, I hope it comes from the federal government,” she said.
Hidalgo criticized how the state has had to close and reopen businesses several times, describing it as a “ping pong effect” that is “based on no data in particular.” She said she feared another round of closures was coming with cases expected to continue rising this winter.
“When you look at areas that were smart and aggressive and brought down the virus, they are not doing economically worse than we are, but they have saved thousands of lives,” she said. “We’re setting [ourselves] up for greater economic pain when we now know another pullback is going to be coming soon.”
There were 1,081 new cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Harris County on Nov. 12, the second time the county passed 1,000 in its daily count this month. The 14-day average for testing positivity hit 8.6%—up from a low point of 5.4% at the beginning of October—and the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations has increased from 563 at the start of the month to 695 as of Nov. 12, according to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council.
In her 2019 State of the County address, Hidalgo said early childhood education would be a priority in her next year in office, setting the stage for a major investment. Although those plans had to be scaled back this year, Hidalgo said the county was still able to make what she called a “seed investment” to kick-start the initiative.
“We are fielding applications for three to four programs that we are going to fund and incubate, and hopefully bring in additional investments,” she said. “The vision is for every child to have access to early education in Harris County.”
Hidalgo also addressed the following topics during the State of the County address:
- On the digital divide: Hidalgo said the coronavirus pandemic amplified what was already a known problem with regard to children in Harris County who do not have access to broadband internet and the technology needed to keep up with classes from home. She said the county has invested $30 million to supply students with devices and connectivity. The county has long-term plans to increase broadband access to areas without cell towers, she said.
- On flooding: The Ike Dike is moving forward at the federal level. This September, the county analyst’s office began work with the Port of Houston to identify stakeholders on how to build coastal barriers to add additional protection. Those barriers can be built faster than the Ike Dike and provide protection while the potentially 20-year project is underway, Hidalgo said. A report is due back in January.
- On criminal justice reform: The county is in the middle of a number of studies and initiatives meant to gather data on the criminal justice system, including an initiative for the Public Defender’s Office to take on take on at least 50% of cases over the next two years and de-escalation training for police officers. The county also implemented a new program Nov. 10 to help provide legal services to immigrants facing deportation.
- On the CARES Act: The county is working through the funds, all of which must be spent by the end of the calendar year under federal guidelines. Hidalgo said the federal government is going to need to pass a second round of funding as needs among county residents are still high.