Health & Science

Texas COVID Cases Are Surging At An ‘Astonishing Rate.’ Here’s What You Need To Know.

Officials at the state health department are concerned about the exponential growth in hospitalizations due to coronavirus over the past month. More than 7,600 people are currently in the hospital with coronavirus in Texas.

In this July 27, 2020 file photo, notes to medical personnel are hung in an area as they prepare to ender a COVID-19 unit at Starr County Memorial Hospital in Rio Grande City, Texas. Experts say Texas’ increase in hospitalizations is as great or even steeper than what we saw with first two coronavirus waves.

Hospitalizations due to coronavirus in Harris County have increased nearly 262% over the past month, according to data from the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council.

Chief State Epidemiologist Jennifer Shuford said she and others at the Texas Department of State Health Services are concerned.

"We’ve been living this pandemic now for a year and a half," Shuford said. "We thought we had seen the worst of it with those first two pandemic waves that we experienced. This third wave that we’re having right now in Texas is showing a very steep increase in cases and hospitalizations, as great or even steeper than what we were seeing with those first two waves."

So What Does Coronavirus In Texas Look Like Right Now?

Shuford said "the case counts are increasing at an astonishing rate." UT-Southwestern estimates there will be more than 1,500 new COVID-19 infections per day by mid-August.

"We are about 90% more cases this week than we were even last week, and almost 10 times as high as we were just a month ago," Shuford said.

Hospitalizations are also increasing. Across the state, more than 7,600 people are currently hospitalized due to coronavirus, and in the Harris County it's almost 1,700. For comparison, last year's summer surge in July saw nearly 4,000 people hospitalized in Harris County, and the more recent winter surge was more than 3,000 people.

The issue with more and more people being hospitalized, Shuford said, is the potential issues with staffing and medical equipment.

"The problem with that is that hospitals usually get prepared when they think flu and pneumonia season is coming up," Shuford said. "They make sure their staffing is ready, and that their ICUs are ready. And with this steep increase in cases and hospitalizations that we're seeing, people just weren’t prepared."

Why Are There So Many New Cases & Hospitalizations?

A big reason is new variants of coronavirus, like delta, that are more easy to transmit. Another factor is the number of people who are unvaccinated. In the Houston area this week, Texas Medical Center CEO Bill McKeon said a majority of people hospitalized have been unvaccinated.

“Hospitalizations across the Texas Medical Center are escalating at a pace we have not observed since the highest COVID-19 peak in summer 2020,” McKeon wrote in a statement Thursday. “The impact of unvaccinated individuals is widespread and encouraging the continued spread of COVID-19.”

A young man gets a dose of the Pfizer vaccine at a Houston Astros vaccination event on June 29, 2021.

In Harris County, about 55% of people 12 and older are fully vaccinated, which is on par with 53% statewide.

"We know that this pandemic is spreading more readily through people who are not fully vaccinated," Shuford said. "But there’s pockets of unvaccinated people all across the state, and so we are seeing spread of this disease all across the state."

Why Is The Delta Variant Everywhere Suddenly? What Even Is It?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the first case of delta variant in the United States in March. Since then, it's become the dominant coronavirus strain in both Texas and the U.S. as a whole.

"Viruses mutate," Shuford said. "That's just what they do. If they have a mutation that somehow makes them a little more aggressive or more easily spreadable, than those things can help that one mutant strain or that variant become the one that increases in proportions."

As coronavirus variants mutate, Shuford said she and other health officials have seen the way the virus spreads from one person to another, also known as transmissibility, continue to increase. One of the first coronavirus variants called alpha was found in the United Kingdom last winter. It was 50% more transmissible than the original coronavirus strain (called SARS-CoV-2). Shuford says the delta variant is 50% more transmissible than alpha.

“People who get infected [with the delta variant], on average, they just have more virus in their respiratory tract than people did when they were infected with previous strains of this virus,” Shuford said. “When there’s more virus sitting in the respiratory tract, you can expel more of that virus with every breath or sneeze or a cough or nose blow."

So Will There Be More Coronavirus Variants & How Does The Vaccine Work With Them?

Most likely, said Shuford, because that's how viruses stay alive.

"We expect that delta is not the last chapter in this book," said Shuford. "We will continue to see ongoing mutations in this virus. We're just going to have to work to keep up with it and keep changing whatever we need to — the guidance, any vaccines, therapeutics."

Shuford said COVID-19 vaccines highly decrease the likelihood of severe symptoms and hospitalizations, even with more transmissible variants like delta. Although it's important to note the CDC said "no vaccines are 100% effective at preventing illness in vaccinated people."

In terms of new recommendations, back in May, the department said fully vaccinated people don't need to wear masks indoors. In July, the CDC then recommended people in counties with "substantial or high" transmission wear a mask indoors, which means 50 or more cases per 100,000 people in a week. More than 230 of Texas' 254 counties fall within the "substantial or high" transmission threshold.

What Does All This Mean For Texas Students Going Back To School In-Person?

While kids 12 and older are approved to get the Pfizer vaccine, and trials are underway for kids under 12, that still leave a lot of kids unvaccinated.

"It’s something that we’re also concerned about," Shuford said. "Anytime that we gather people together in a setting where a lot of them aren’t vaccinated, there’s chances for outbreaks. It’s not just in schools, it’s in any sort of public setting."

Two elementary-age boys study while wearing maskes and headphones.
HISD expects about 40 percent of students to return to in-person learning this week.

New CDC guidelines for kids returning in-person to school recommend anyone who isn't fully vaccinated wear a mask indoors, students stay 3 feet apart in the classroom and that schools practice other safety measures like frequent cleaning and handwashing.

Some school districts in other states have reintroduced mask mandates for schools to prevent community spread. A recent executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott prevents school districts, county governments and other state agencies in Texas from implementing mask mandates.

For Shuford, she continues to recommend people who aren't fully vaccinate wear a mask and physically distance from people not in their household. She also emphasized the importance of getting everyone vaccinated who is able.

"For children who are in that 0 to 11 age range and can’t get the vaccine, it’ll be important for the people in their lives who surround them to make sure that they’re fully vaccinated, so that they can help protect those vulnerable populations,” Shuford said. “That's true not only for the kids, but also for people who are immunocompromised."

What Do We Do Now?

Shuford said this third pandemic wave is a little different than the first two, mostly because of the availability of vaccines, but the same prevention steps still apply.

"Physically distancing from people who are outside of your household, wearing masks when you’re around people who are outside of your household, making sure that you wash your hands or clean them on a regular basis and improving the air circulation or the ventilation in your living spaces or working spaces — all of those things work now, even with the new variants," Shuford said.

Texas Department of State Health Services is also monitoring cold and flu season, which starts in the fall.

"Last year, so many people were wearing masks, and they were socially distancing, that we didn’t really have a flu season," Shuford said. "Now we’re at a different place where people are mixing a little bit more. We are worried about not only COVID-19, but also influenza and any number of other respiratory viruses that circulate in the fall and winter months."

Texas Health and Human Services has information about vaccine eligibility and where to find a vaccine appointment across the state.

Additional reporting by Matt Harab.

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