ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The coronavirus is hobbling cities across the United States, including the country's fourth-largest city. Houston has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 cases per capita. So far, the death rate has not kept pace. But hospitals and city leaders are bracing for things to get worse, as Houston Public Media's Matt Harab reports.
MATT HARAB, BYLINE: The head of Houston's health department, Dr. David Persse, used to convey just information at his regular press conferences. Last week, his tone shifted to one of frustration and warning.
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DAVID PERSSE: I just want to put in perspective for those folks who don't see what the issue is - in your experience, you may not know anybody who's sick, and you may not know anybody who's died yet.
HARAB: Houston hospitals are not overwhelmed yet, and last weekend, the data continued to show some flattening in admissions. But the number of COVID cases keeps climbing. At two of Houston's busiest hospitals in the Harris Health System, chief operating officer Mike Hill estimates that COVID patients are taking up more than half the ICU beds.
MIKE HILL: That has creeped up over the last two to three weeks. We've been lucky to have a lot of coordination with the Texas Medical Center in an effort to try to transfer patients.
HARAB: It's not just the local medical systems that are hit hard. So is Houston's broader economy, the oil and gas and hospitality industries taking the biggest punches. During the county's stay-at-home order in April, the Greater Houston Restaurant Association says at least 10% of restaurants closed for good. The association's president, Melissa Stewart, says these numbers could double or even triple if there's another shutdown.
MELISSA STEWART: If you've been able to convert to curbside or to go, then that's been somewhat helpful. But if you can't and now all of a sudden you have to close for another two weeks, all your product is perishable, which means for two weeks, everything you have doesn't last. And you have to restock again. So it's just tremendous amount of expense.
HARAB: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who took power away from local officials to order business closures, says he's not planning another shutdown. Furloughed waitress Cynthia Pratt, though, says she's worried about her health if she does go back to work.
CYNTHIA PRATT: We are going to lose our health insurance as of August 1. And I'm worried - what if I get sick?
HARAB: Houston's Latino community is especially hard-hit. It makes up nearly 40% of COVID-19 cases in the region. Ed Gomez is the reverend at San Pablo Episcopal Church.
ED GOMEZ: There's a lot of people with anxiety, depression and the increase in substance and alcohol and domestic violence.
HARAB: As for the direction of the pandemic here, there are some positive signs. Yesterday, health officials said hospitals are doing a better job caring for COVID patients and that the length of hospitalizations is getting shorter. Harris County's health director Umair Shah says while that's good, he's still worried that hospitals could still be overwhelmed if people don't wear masks and socially distance.
UMAIR SHAH: I do think we can never say never. Really, a lot of it depends on what happens in our community and all the actions that we take, whether it's individually or collectively. That's going to determine where we as a community go.
HARAB: A report from the University of Houston says the city will be in a moderate recession in the first quarter of next year should the virus run its course this year. That would mean the loss of more than 70,000 jobs. But for Reverend Gomez, his worries are right in front of him. This Saturday is when a moratorium on rental evictions will end.
GOMEZ: I just had to write a letter to a property manager, promising that we would pay the July rent if they do not evict the person - an elderly person.
HARAB: Gomez says he's collected more than $80,000 in donations to help with rent. Since the moratorium went into effect in March, landlords in Harris County have filed more than 5,000 eviction claims.
For NPR News, I'm Matt Harab in Houston.
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