As the number of COVID-19 cases reported daily continues to rapidly increase in Texas, many Houstonians are looking at the upcoming weekend with a combination of fear, disappointment, and frustration. Back in March, many of us looked at the Fourth of July as a distant holiday we’d surely be able to celebrate after the COVID-19 pandemic had subsided. Though, seeing that Harris County continues to lead the way in reported COVID-19 cases in all of Texas, this couldn’t be further from our current reality.
As bars and beaches close down in hopes that another detrimental spike can be prevented in our city, many healthcare professionals are still anxiously holding their breath (metaphorically at least) as Independence Day approaches. For Dr. Suma Manjunath, the Kelsey-Seybold Clinic Managing Physician of Travel Medicine in Pearland, it’s clear that just a fraction of irresponsible people out of the Houston population could cause widespread, irreversible damage, she says.
“With the Fourth of July weekend, the concern would be that the next four weeks is just going to magnify the number of cases we have,” says Manjunath, who has been the clinic's point person on COVID-19 since the early days of the outbreak in Houston, when the disease was still mostly associated with people traveling from other countries. “It’s very scary because most of the hospitals are already approaching full capacity and all age groups are getting infected and needing inpatient care, so it’s not a good time to let our guard down.”
Though you may be thinking that a small get-together outdoors couldn’t hurt, this mentality mixed with lax precautions could be a recipe for disaster. Even if you're celebrating outside, the excitement of the holiday can easily cause you to shout, loudly talk over one another, or innocently lean in to hear someone clearer, all of the normal human exchanges that have been found by researchers to greatly increase the chances of spreading COVID-19 when people opt to run the risk of gathering in the first place. It’s these types of unthinking actions, says Manjunath, that can cause droplets from an infected person to become airborne in the wind and spread to anyone in close proximity.
This is why, if you’re looking to celebrate, Manjunath urges you do so with diligence, distance, and with as much caution as you can muster. “If we want to stop this we have to get very serious and stop behaving like there’s nothing going on,” she says. “We are in the middle of a pandemic, and we need to be very serious and exercise our personal judgments, wear masks, maintain social distance, wash hands, stop touching our faces, and avoid any gathering of any kind other than with the household members.”
If Houstonians adopt the mindset that “one small party won’t hurt, I’m careful 99 percent of the time,” Manjunath fears we could be looking at a nightmare scenario like the ones that were playing out in Wuhan, then in Milan and then in New York City earlier this spring. “After Fourth of July, there will be another two to four weeks until we could start seeing the next spike in cases and obviously that’ll run into August,” she says. On top of this impacting when children and college students start school, when restaurant and hospitality businesses reopen, and when travel plans of any kind can be made, this potential spike could have a detrimental impact on Houston’s hospitals if the numbers continue to increase at the same or larger rates as those we are currently seeing.
“We are going to overwhelm our public health and hospital system, because we’ll have way too many patients, and when we really need help we may not get the help because we’re putting our first responders at increased risk,” says Manjunath if there’s another COVID-19 surge. “All of them are putting themselves at risk to treat these patients. So they will be at the risk of contracting the disease, and if they get the disease and cannot come to work then that puts the short-staffing on the medical system—it’s a snowball effect.”
The threat of another COVID-19 wave in Houston can induce a lot of panic, but if we play our part in being responsible this holiday weekend, Manjunath is confident we can avoid it entirely. If you’re trying to celebrate the birth of American independence this year, it’s still possible. Instead of lighting fireworks with a group of friends, watch the City of Houston’s virtual firework show with your family. If you simply must be out somewhere, stay outdoors, practice social distancing, don't touch your face, wash your hands, and wear a mask around others to ensure the safety of you and everyone else. And again, the people around you should only be the people you've already been quarantining with. With caution and diligence, she says, we can make Lady Liberty proud while also flattening the curve.