Harris County approves additional COVID-19 testing and relief measures

Harris County once again responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent economic downturn at Commissioners Court on Tuesday, August 25. The following COVID-19 testing and relief measures were approved for Harris County residents:

  • An additional $15 million allocation for the Harris County Emergency Direct Assistance Program (proposed by Commissioner Rodney Ellis), bringing the total to $70 million including the first round of the program.
  • An additional $15 million for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, bringing the total to $40 million.
  • A $5 million investment in the Harris County Homeless Task Force’s Respite, Rehabilitation and Re-Entry Center.
  • Implementing Harris County Public Health’s Equitable Testing Strategy.
  • Allocating $1 million for Census outreach needed to increase the response rate in light of COVID-19 barriers and the revised Census deadline.

“As we enter month six of this pandemic, Harris County cannot let up when it comes to helping this community,” said Commissioner Ellis. “While we hope that Congress passes a generous aid bill to help residents with housing, food, health care, and other basic needs, local leaders are stepping up to provide people with the tools to keep themselves and their families safe.”

“Although we are working with limited funding, I am proud that we will be increasing our reach to more households for both direct assistance and rental assistance payments, moving forward with the recommendations of the Homeless Task force, as well as improving our testing capacity in our most at-risk neighborhoods to help those hardest hit by this pandemic.”

Direct assistance has proven to be an effective way to help low-income families meet their needs. The Harris County Emergency Direct Assistance Program, which will be administered by Catholic Charities, will provide $1,200 to over 30,000 eligible households in need of relief in Harris County. This falls far short of the 500,000 households who applied for the first Harris County COVID-19 Relief Fund, and Commissioner Ellis is committed to do everything in his power to find solutions to help families weather this pandemic and economic crisis. The additional funding brings the total direct assistance provided by Harris County to $70 million since the start of the pandemic. Details of the application process will be shared when available.

Having a place to shelter is always important, but during a global pandemic, it can be the difference between life and death. The pandemic has left many families struggling to pay rent, and the expiration of federal protections for tenants has put our community in a looming eviction crisis. Given the extremely high demand seen for the Harris County Emergency Rental Assistance Program so far, Commissioner Ellis was proud to support adding $15 million to the program, as well as allocating $5 million to support recommendations of the Harris County Homeless Task Force.

As our public health system continues to combat the spread of COVID-19, we must ensure that resources are concentrated where there is the most need. Harris County Public Health’s (HCPH’s) COVID-19 Equitable Testing Strategy is a four-part testing strategy that is designed to prioritize people and places at highest risk for COVID-19 due to public health disparities and inequities. The strategy will increase HCPH’s capacity for equitable testing by focusing testing efforts by using  public health data that will identify ZIP Codes with higher infection rates; expanding testing capacity through non-Harris County testing centers, including Federally Qualified Health Centers; increasing community-level outreach and education with the help of faith-based organizations and other frequently visited community partners; and expanding linkage to other resources and supports for the community.

Additionally, Commissioners Court approved a $1 million surge in funding for census outreach. Previous estimates projected that the Harris County response rate will only reach 62% by the revised deadline of September 30. Such a significant undercount could lead to billions in lost federal funding as well as the loss of a congressional seat—despite the significant growth in the Harris County population. The County is dedicating the resources necessary to get everyone counted safely during this pandemic.