Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
Exploring how COVID-19 and its impacts have affected Houston
Beyond the human toll of COVID-19, the pandemic has caused the worst financial situation we have seen in generations. Thousands of families are struggling while also grieving the loss of loved ones.
How COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis is affecting Houston
The novel coronavirus disease in 2019 (COVID-19) began to emerge in Greater Houston in March 2020. Since then, life in Houston — like most of the world — has been upended. Hundreds of thousands have contracted the virus, and thousands have died. Unemployment has soared to levels never before seen. The resulting health and economic crisis is ongoing, getting worse, and disproportionately affecting Black, Hispanic and low-income Houstonians.
By understanding which communities are hit hardest by the various impacts of COVID-19 we can better target resources and assistance to ensure all residents get the support they need.
Note about the data
While we summarize authoritative sources on COVID-19 case and death counts for the three-county area, we’ve made an intentional effort to shed light on the broader impacts of the pandemic across a range of quality of life topics here.
The majority of data on the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 are from the Household Pulse Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. All Household Pulse Survey data presented for Houston are at the Houston Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) level — a statistical region delineated by the Office of Budget and Management that includes nine counties: Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery, and Waller counties.
This new survey began in late spring and is currently in its third phase. Phase 1 of the survey was conducted weekly and ran from April 23, 2020 through July 21, 2020. Phase 2 moved to a bi-weekly survey conducted from August 19, 2020 through October 26, 2020. Phase 3 is also conducted bi-weekly and began October 28, 2020. Due to the nature of surveys, the data may change significantly depending on the time period, which is why we offer as much historical data as possible to provide a more complete picture.
We will continue to update the site based on more recent data releases and research on how COVID-19 is affecting our region and residents.
Employment and financial impacts
COVID-19’s sweeping impacts on the nation’s economy began in March as individuals began staying at home and governments began to issue lockdowns in an effort to flatten the negative health curve. As the economy slowed, workers were laid off and production levels were cut. From the individual worker to entire industries, almost everyone was financially affected, though some more than others.
In January and February 2020, unemployment rates in each of Greater Houston’s three counties and Texas was below four percent. Of course, unemployment peaked in April and May, 2020 — soaring to 13.0% in Fort Bend, 14.6% in Harris, and 13.2% in Montgomery counties — the highest on record. As of November 2021, unemployment rates are closer than what they were before the pandemic — 4.8% in Fort Bend, 5.1% in Harris, and 4.7% in Montgomery. November 2021 unemployment rates in the three-county region are slightly higher than they are for Texas (4.5%) and the U.S. overall (3.9%).
Unemployment insurance claims filed by individuals for the first time in the three-county region spiked late-March and early-April 2020, reaching a peak of 67,221 across the region during the week of April 4 alone. More than 1,217,400 people have filed for unemployment insurance at least once in the region between March 7, 2020 and December 18, 2021 — 136,592 in Fort Bend, 988,718 in Harris, and 92,102 in Montgomery counties.
In Year 1 of the pandemic, more than half of households in the Houston Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) have experienced income loss since March 13, according to March 2021 Household Pulse Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That rate climbs to 64% for Hispanic, 53% for Black, and 50% for Asian Houstonians. While white Houstonians have experienced the lowest rates of job loss, about two out of five have still been affected since the beginning of the pandemic.
In Year 2 of the pandemic, about one-quarter of Houstonians report lost employment income in the last four weeks as of September 2021. Hispanic and Black Houstonians continue to report higher levels of employment income than the regional average.
In Year 1 of the pandemic, adults in lower-income households in the Houston metro area have experienced the highest rates of income loss since March 13, 2020 while those in households within the highest income group have experienced the lowest rates of income loss. In March 2021, 70% of households with annual incomes less than $25,000 have lost income compared to 21% of households that earn more than $200,000 per year. An increasingly larger share of adults in households that earn between $35,000 and $49,999 per year have reported income loss since the beginning of the survey in mid-April 2020.
Lower-income workers overwhelmingly work on the front lines of the service industry such as in retail, restaurants and bars, accommodation — the sectors with the most job losses as a result of business closures due to the virus.
In Year 2 of the pandemic, Houstonians report lower levels of lost income in the last four weeks, though the trend of the lowest-paid workers experiencing the highest rates of income loss continues.
Economic stimulus payments
The economic stimulus payments that eligible Americans received around mid-April seemed to provide a much needed boost for Houstonians. The vast majority used the money to pay for important expenses rather than add it to savings, indicating the urgency with which people need an infusion of cash.
About one out of five respondents did not receive or expect to receive the payment. Of those that did receive a stimulus payment, two-thirds of adults in the Houston metro area used stimulus checks to pay for basic needs such as food, clothing, rent, etc. A smaller proportion of the population used it to pay down debt or add to savings.
Nearly three out of 10 Hispanic Houstonians reported they did not receive or expect to receive the stimulus benefit — the highest rate among racial/ethnic groups. One possible reason for this could be that most of Houston’s undocumented population is Hispanic, and households with even one unauthorized member were ineligible for this aid — including those in mixed-status families (i.e., where some family members are U.S. citizens and others are undocumented).
In general, lower-income households were more likely to spend the stimulus check on everyday expenses. For example, 84% of adults living in households with incomes between $35,000 and $49,999 spent their stimulus checks to pay for needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. While higher-income households were the least likely to receive a check, about a quarter who did put it toward savings rather than spend it.
Difficulty paying for expenses
The unprecedented number of job losses in the region, particularly among the working poor, has further constrained families who already lived paycheck to paycheck. The result is that more and more families are having trouble paying for basic necessities.
The proportion of families struggling to make ends meet gradually increased between August 2020 and the end of the year, but has tapered down since then as we head into Year 2 of the pandemic. However, over three out of 10 Houstonians still had a “very” or “somewhat” difficult time paying for the usual household expenses in mid-December 2021.
Black and Latino households have had the most difficulty paying for expenses during the pandemic, though that figure has declined in Year 2. As of mid-December 2021, 53% of Black Houstonians and 41% of Hispanic Houstonians report “very” or “somewhat” difficulty in paying for regular household expenses, although a quarter and nearly two in five white and Asian-American households, respectively, have also experienced some difficulty.
Food insecurity is most common amongst people living below the poverty line, minorities, single adults and single-parent households. Although it is closely linked to poverty, people living above the poverty line also experience food insecurity. This is particularly true during the pandemic when many more households face economic hardship due to employment and income losses and have difficulty accessing food due to fear of catching the virus and limited transportation options.
Since April 2020, about 15% of households in the region have “often” or “sometimes” not had enough to eat. Among households with children, that rate climbs to an average of 20%. Since the Census Bureau began tracking in mid-April 2020, food insufficiency for families peaked around the end of October/early November and then again in late February, likely a result of the severe winter storm that knocked out power and water for about a week for millions of Houstonians.
At mid-December 2021 in the Houston Metro Area, 15% of all households reported “often” or “sometimes” not having enough food to eat. The Houston Metro Area has had the highest rate of reported food insecurity among metros 15 times out of the 40 surveys conducted by the Census Bureau, including the one which occurred during and immediately after Winter Storm Uri in February 2021.
For households with children, food insecurity by mid-December was 15%. Almost one-quarter of Hispanic households with children were food insecure mid-December 2021 compared to 4% of white families with children.
Housing costs typically comprise the biggest expense for households. When large numbers of people lose their jobs and incomes, housing vulnerability increases. Families are at a risk of falling into homelessness, among other challenges.
The majority of Houstonians report being able to pay their rent or mortgage on time. However, homeowners are more likely to be current with housing payments than renters. Between December 1-13, 2021, about 21% of renters were behind on payments compared to 10% of homeowners. While a larger proportion of homeowners have been able to make housing payments since the beginning of the pandemic, renters appear to continue to struggle to do so. Earlier in 2020, homeowners were more likely than renters to have payments deferred, affording them extra time to pay.
Renters are more likely to be Black and Hispanic, which means these communities are disproportionately impacted by rent — and the consequences of not paying — during the pandemic.
A large proportion of Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans in Houston report not being able to pay their mortgage or rent on time. In mid-December 2021, a staggering 41% of Black renters reported not being able to pay last month’s rent compared to 3% of white renters.
Looking into the future, renters are consistently about twice as likely to have lower confidence in being able to pay the next month’s rent than homeowners. Over the last several months, an average of 40% of renters are worried about future housing payments compared to 21% of homeowners.
During the survey conducted between December 1 and December 13 2021, 41% of renters reported “no” or “slight” confidence in making next month’s payment compared to 17% of homeowners. Owners were over three times as likely as renters to expect payments to be deferred. About 45% of Hispanic, 51% of Black and 70% of Asian renters reported low confidence compared to 19% of white renters during the same time period. About 33% of Hispanic homeowners reported low confidence in making next month’s payment compared to 5% of white homeowners.
Evictions and Foreclosures
A number of local and federal efforts have been made to protect families from evictions during the pandemic. Government and private rental and direct financial assistance funds have been established and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a moratorium on evictions. Despite these efforts, evictions have still been happening at an unprecedented rate.
Houston is among the top three cities for the most evictions during the pandemic, according to Eviction Lab. Over 57,000 evictions have been filed in Harris County alone between March 1, 2020 and December 31, 2021, according to the Evictions Dashboard created by January Advisors. Most evictions have occurred in the Greenspoint, Spring Southwest, Eldridge/West Oaks, Westchase, and Alief areas. This official figure is likely an undercount as many evictions in our region happen without a paper trail.
Families who are evicted face significant challenges. Many are forced to find subpar housing, move in with others, live in cars or go to shelters, while some end up homeless.1 This is particularly dangerous during a pandemic as overcrowding can facilitate the spread of disease. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to follow CDC guidelines regarding social distancing, staying home, and regular hand hygiene without a permanent residence.
Houston metro renters are consistently much more concerned about being evicted than homeowners are about foreclosure. In August 2021, 58% of renters who are behind on housing payments reported a high likelihood of losing their home within the next two months compared to 27% of homeowners.
Mental health impacts
COVID-19’s rapid spread and significant death count are enough to negatively impact our collective mental health. Adverse mental health crises — fear of ourselves and loved ones catching the virus, perpetual anticipatory grief — add to the invisible health toll communities are facing. The simultaneous economic crisis has caused hundreds of thousands to lose their jobs, increased the risk of homelessness, and resulted in business and individuals bearing the brunt of massive financial losses.
While public health strategies like social distancing reduce the risk of spreading the disease, they may also limit access to our social network and support system, causing feelings of loneliness.2 As a result, most Americans have experienced increased levels of anxiety and depression since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.3 And it’s not just adults that are affected. Children’s lives have also been disrupted. Children often lack the ability to process and the tools to adapt to changes which negatively impacts their mental health.
The proportion of adults in the Houston Metropolitan Area that have felt nervous, anxious, or on edge for at least more than half the days of a week has remained elevated in Year 1 of the pandemic, though it has ebbed and flowed as eviction moratoriums were instated and expired, the holidays came and went, and the winter storm in February 2021 exacerbated challenges.
Heading into Year 2 of the pandemic, a slightly larger proportion of adults report not experiencing anxiety symptoms. In the most recent Census Bureau survey, 22% of adults report anxiety symptoms for at least half the days of the week – similar to rates from the beginning the survey was conducted one year ago.
As previous data show, the pandemic-induced recession has hit lower-income Houstonians the hardest. This, in part, could explain elevated feelings of anxiety among those who earn between $25,000 – $75,000 per year, compared to those who earn more than six figures.
The way children “went to school” was transformed in the pandemic’s early months as districts and campuses moved to online learning. While the lasting impacts of the pandemic on learning and academic outcomes is still unclear, research suggests the pandemic has and will continue to severely exacerbate pre-existing opportunity gaps that put low-income students at a disadvantage relative to their better-off peers.4
According to survey data between March 17 -29, 2021 from the U.S. Census Bureau, about 37% of students in Houston MSA have spent less time on learning activities relative to before the pandemic. In this most recent survey, Hispanic and white students were most likely to report spending less time on learning. This question was discontinued by the Census Bureau after March 2021.
Higher education plans have also changed. Among adults who were planning to pursue education beyond high school, about 17% have canceled their plans and 5% will take fewer classes.
Among adults who canceled their higher education plans, 59% cite financial constraints as a reason.
Even before the pandemic, consistent and reliable access to a computer and the internet was considered a modern necessity to learning. The pandemic has made it even more critical as families decide whether to send their kids back to school in-person or remain virtual. Recent preliminary research suggests online learning and teaching are effective only if students have consistent access to the internet and computers.5 Texas has made substantial efforts to reduce the digital divide among its students, and we can see that progress over time.
The most recent data from the Household Pulse Survey shows the majority of Houston children always have a computer or other digital device available for educational purposes. Hispanic and Black children typically have the lowest rates of reliable access, making virtual learning impossible and limiting their resources and technical ability. Students were more likely to report never having a device available early in the pandemic, particularly between mid-April and mid-July 2020 and in late February, possibly due to the widespread power outages resulting from Winter Storm Uri.
As of the most recent data available from the Household Pulse Survey, over 80% of students in Houston reported always having access to the internet in early July. Similar to their access to computers, children from Black households had less consistent access than their white counterparts.
COVID-19 confirmed cases
As of December 30, 2021, there have been over 814,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Houston’s three-county region. There have been 98,501 cases in Fort Bend, 641,760 in Harris, and 74,038 in Montgomery counties.
From the beginning of March to mid-June, the daily case count in Harris County stayed below 400 per day. However, at the end of June cases began to rise. This increase coincides with what many reports have called the “Memorial Day spike” (a sharp increase in cases associated with holiday-weekend activities). It also coincides with the State of Texas’s order to allow restaurants to open at 75% capacity — previously, restaurants were open at half capacity. The next major increase occurred from September 20-22 was a result of a delay in counting backlogged cases, according to the New York Times. Cases in Harris County were on a steady rise from October 3, 2020 to January 14, 2021 and have been declining since.
Fort Bend County also experienced a spike around June 15, as cases started rising at a higher rate, although the increase wasn’t as rapid as it was for Harris County. Fort Bend saw a sharp increase around August 3, due to the addition of backlogged cases to the tally. As with Harris County, cases in Fort Bend County were also climbing steadily in September, 2020 peaking in December and have been declining since mid-January 2021.
Montgomery County witnessed its steepest increase in COVID-19 cases between early June and mid-July. Positive cases have been fluctuating since. Montgomery County also saw a steady rise in COVID-19 cases in mid-November which started declining the beginning of February 2021.
Cases per 100,000 Residents
Between March 4, 2020 and December 30, 2021, Texas recorded 13,032 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents. Within the three-county region, Harris County leads with 13,616 cases per 100,000 residents. Fort Bend and Montgomery counties recorded 12,135 and 12,190 cases per 100,000 residents, respectively.
COVID-19 deaths have also been on the rise in Houston’s three-county region, where 11,919 people have died from COVID-19 as of December 30, 2021, including 1,006 deaths in Fort Bend, 9,772 in Harris, and 1,141 in Montgomery counties.
Deaths per 100,000 Residents
Texas has recorded 258 deaths per 100,000 residents due to COVID-19 between March 4, 2020 and December 30, 2021. In the greater Houston area, Harris County has recorded 207 deaths per 100,000 residents. Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties have recorded 124 and 188 deaths per 100,000 residents, respectively.
COVID-19 Deaths by Race/Ethnicity
Overwhelming evidence supports the fact that Black, Hispanic and Indigenous people are contracting — and dying from — COVID-19 at a much higher rate than whites. While the virus seemingly doesn’t discriminate, underlying socio-economic factors and existing patterns of inequality contribute to the virus disproportionately impacting these racial and ethnic groups.
Black and Hispanic populations are more susceptible to dying from COVID-19 because they disproportionately work on the front lines, have lower access to health care, historically live in poor-quality environments, and tend to have a higher prevalence of preexisting conditions.
In simple terms, if the virus were to affect everyone in relatively similar ways we would expect each group’s proportion of cases and deaths to be comparable to their share of the overall population. However, that’s not what is happening — we see significant disparities in who is succumbing to the virus.
For example, while Hispanics make up 25% of Fort Bend County’s population, they comprise over 32% of the county’s COVID-19 deaths.
A similar pattern exists in Montgomery County. While Black residents make up about 5% of the county’s population, they comprise over 10% of all COVID-19 deaths.
In Fort Bend County, Hispanic Houstonians are dying from COVID-19 at the highest rates. COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 Hispanic residents in Fort Bend County is 107 per 100,000 Hispanic residents. COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 Black residents in Montgomery County is 403 per 100,000 Black residents — over twice the rate among whites in the county.
Vaccines started rolling out in mid-December 2020. Official vaccination figures tracked by Texas Department of State Health Services data are below.
As of January 3, 2022, 83% of Fort Bend County’s eligible population (5 years of age and older) has received at least one vaccine, with 73% being fully vaccinated. Vaccination rates in Harris and Montgomery counties are lower in comparison, with 64% and 57% of the eligible population fully vaccinated, respectively. However, not all residents have equal access to vaccines.
As of January 3, 2022, Asian Americans have the highest vaccination rates across all three counties and the state of Texas. Black residents are vaccinated at the lowest rates in Harris County as well as the state of Texas while white residents are vaccinated at the lowest rates in Fort Bend and Montgomery counties.
While income data on who has been vaccinated is not publicly available, we can use survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau to understand general trends. It is important to note these are not official vaccination rates.
Vaccination rates tend to correlate with income level as well. The higher a household’s income, the more likely they are to have been vaccinated. According to estimates from the most recent Household Pulse Survey, about 72% of adults in households that earn less than $25,000 per year have received a vaccination compared to 85% of households that earn more than $200,000 annually. Vaccination rates for all groups appear to have increased since the beginning of 2021.
Houston-area residents give a number of reasons for not receiving or planning to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. According to surveys conducted in December the top three reasons for this are concerns over potential side effects (45%), residents don’t trust the COVID-19 vaccines (42%), and wanting to wait and see if it is safe (37%).
- Collinson, R., & Reed, D. (2018). The effects of evictions on low-income households. https://economics.nd.edu/assets/303258/jmp_rcollinson_1_.pdf
- Kaiser Family Foundation. (2020, August 21). The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use
- Pfefferbaum, B., & North, C. S. (2020). Mental Health and the Covid-19 Pandemic. New England Journal of Medicine, 383(6), pp. 510–512. https://doi.org/10.1056/nejmp2008017
- García, E., & Weiss, E. (2020). COVID-19 and Student Performance, Equity, and US Education Policy: Lessons from Pre-Pandemic Research to Inform Relief, Recovery, and Rebuilding. Economic Policy Institute. https://www.epi.org/publication/the-consequences-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-for-education-performance-and-equity-in-the-united-states-what-can-we-learn-from-pre-pandemic-research-to-inform-relief-recovery-and-rebuilding/
- Boehmer TK, DeVies J, Caruso E, et al. (2020, May–August). Changing Age Distribution of the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, 15(9). MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1404–1409. http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6939e1