Fort Bend County Judge KP George raised the county’s COVID-19 threat level on Tuesday in response to the surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations due to the hyper transmissible delta variant.

The threat level will increase from “yellow,” or moderate risk, to “orange,” indicating a significant risk of exposure to the virus in Fort Bend County.

“The outlook without vaccinations and masks — it doesn’t look good,” George said. “The data suggests that the threat (to) our community is even greater with a fourth wave of COVID-19.”

The decision comes less than two weeks after Harris County raised its threat level to orange.

At Tuesday’s press conference, George also urged all county staff to wear masks and added that health screenings will once again be implemented at the entrance of all county buildings starting next week. The request comes after Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order in order to prevent local municipalities from implementing a mask mandate for residents.

Fort Bend County Attorney Bridgette Smith-Lawson said county officials are aware of the restrictions and “evaluating the authorities that the county has within its constitutional duties.” 

“This disease is not a political issue,” she said. “We have to approach it from a science-based approach, based on the advice from our health officials.”

Abbott’s order, released last week, consolodates a number of previous orders that did things like ban localities from mandating masks and proof of vaccinations.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner became the first local leader to challenge that order, after directing all city employees to wear masks inside city buildings

The Fort Bend County threat level was initially dropped to yellow in April as cases and hospitalizations began to decrease. That changed with the emergence of the delta variant, which quickly became the most dominant strain of COVID-19 in Houston and across the country.

The variant, coupled with dwindling vaccination rates, has caused an upswing in cases and hospitalizations, according to Peter Hotez, an infectious disease expert from Baylor College of Medicine.

“To really stop this virus, we need well over 80% of the county vaccinated,” Hotez said. “We have to vaccinate 200,000 people in the county as fast as possible.”

Health experts have previously estimated roughly 70% of the country would need to be vaccinated in order to reach heard immunity.

Hotez added that he was particularly concerned about unvaccinated adolescents who will soon be going back to school in person.

High school senior Anshumi Jhaveri joined county officials at the Tuesday morning press conference to speak about her anxiety surrounding her return to in-person learning.

“This is going to be my first time stepping foot on campus for in-person learning since the shutdown began in March of 2020,” Jhaveri said. “My anxiety is made worse by knowing that while I am vaccinated and I choose to wear a mask, people sitting directly next to me may not, and their decision directly impacts my health.”

On July 1, 29 infected patients occupied Fort Bend County’s general hospital beds, according to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council. That number jumped to 115 as of Aug. 2 — nearly four times higher. During that same timespan, ICU occupancy increased more than eight times.

The increased caseload comes despite nearly 67% of the county’s eligible population being fully vaccinated — the highest in the region, according to state data. In comparison, Harris County currently sits at about 55%. 

Hotez said that Fort Bend was fairing better than other regions in the South, but will soon need to ramp up vaccination administration in order to minimize future infections. 

“I think our time’s gonna eventually run out,” Hotez said. “East Texas is about to get hit really hard because the vaccination rates are ridiculously low.”