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'Let’s all wear masks again': Judge Hidalgo increases Harris Co. COVID threat level, encourages vaccinations

Hidalgo says we are fighting two pandemics: COVID-19 along with misinformation about the vaccines that are saving lives.

HOUSTON — Harris County on Thursday increased its COVID-19 threat level back to "orange."

The orange, or significant level, recommends residents "minimize all contacts unless fully vaccinated."

Judge Lina Hidalgo was joined by public health and emergency officials along with Dr. Hotez from Baylor College of Medicine at an 11 a.m. press conference

“We find ourselves in the midst of not one pandemic but two,” said Hidalgo. “Thousands of lives lost, our economy on its heels, but also the arrival of miracle vaccines that have proven effective and safe. That are readily available and free, that is keeping residents from dying at the hands of this virus. We’re also in the midst of another pandemic. And that’s the pandemic of misinformation.”

The county dropped the COVID-19 threat level from red (severe) to orange (significant) and then yellow (moderate) in May. Now it's going back to Orange as of July 22, 2021

Judge Hidalgo said the misinformation is keeping people from getting vaccinated, and it’s "keeping us" from moving on from the virus.

"Let's all wear masks again"

“As we have such a high spread, we are asking everyone to wear a mask,” said Hidalgo. “I know they are not comfortable, I don’t like wearing masks either, but until we get the numbers back down, let’s all wear masks again.”

Hidalgo said by not wearing masks, even those who are vaccinated are “normalizing” not wearing masks for those who are unvaccinated. She also reminded the vaccinated they can still spread the virus to the unvaccinated, who can get sicker from the virus.

Concerns about Delta

Dr. Hotez said he agreed with Hidalgo’s decision to go back to the orange threat level, addressing his concerns about the Delta variant.

“In terms of the Delta variant, this is far more transmissible than anything we have seen before. It’s far more contagious,” said Hotez. “We are dealing with this Delta variant that is twice as contagious as the original COVID-19 virus.”

“That’s why we are seeing this very aggressive spread in areas where vaccination rates are low.”

He also noted that public health officials and leaders are fighting misinformation on social media and "conservative media" that are keeping people from protecting themselves.

"The big thing that worries me is by now, anyone who's unvaccinated and has been lucky enough to have escaped COVID, your luck is about to run out. That's how transmissible this virus is. One of the messages for today is it's still not too late to get vaccinated," said Dr. Hotez.

No new stay at home order or mask mandate at the local level

Local governments in Texas cannot mandate stay-at-home or mask orders, so the threat level system is simply a way for leaders to offer guidance to residents and businesses.

RELATED: Governor Abbott issues Executive Order to stop most government entities from mandating masks

In July, all 50 states have seen an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, mostly among the unvaccinated, as the Delta variant continues to spread.

Related: Troubling COVID trend underway across the U.S.

What Level 2 / Orange threat level means in Harris County

 "Level 2 signifies a significant and uncontrolled level of COVID-19 in Harris County, meaning that there is ongoing transmission of the virus. At this level, unvaccinated residents should minimize contact with others, avoid any medium or large gatherings, and only visit permissible businesses that follow public health guidance. Unvaccinated individuals should continue to mask, physical distance, and avoid all medium and large gatherings. Vaccinated individuals follow the latest local public health guidance on whether to also wear a mask while indoors in public places, in crowded outdoor settings, and for activities with close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated." Read more here.

LINK: Harris County COVID-19 data hub

"Regardless of the Current Threat Level in Harris County, all residents should continue to use frequent handwashing and follow guidelines established by workplaces and businesses. Unvaccinated residents should continue the use of face coverings indoors and outdoors, social distance, and continue to quarantine for 14 days if exposed to COVID-19," notes the county's website.

According to Wednesday's COVID numbers from Harris County Public Health, ICU bed usage is at 8.33% and general bed usage is at 2.87%.