Texas COVID-19 hospitalizations are down from months, but experts say there’s still reason to be wary
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As Texans head into the holiday season, there’s a lot to celebrate when it comes to tackling the pandemic. But health experts say the state is not out of the woods yet.
First the good news. The number of residents hospitalized here with COVID-19 is at one of its lowest points since the start of the pandemic, while average daily deaths from the virus are also falling and vaccines are finally pouring – after a year of parents anxiously awaiting approval – into the arms of the state’s elementary school-age children.
After a miserable summer in which the delta variant caused a wave that rivaled the worst moments of the coronavirus pandemic, state health officials and experts say they are grateful for signs of relief. But they are wary of being too optimistic about a pandemic that has had this state more than once in a stranglehold.
“People are just a little happy or relieved that the most recent wave is over, but I don’t think anyone has anything to celebrate yet,” said Cameron County public health authority Dr. James Castillo. In that province, the proportion of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients has fallen to 3%, from more than 25% during the summer wave.
Still, health officials are now looking at a recent increase in the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases and a small rise in the number of COVID-19 tests that come back positive as possible warning signs.
They are also monitoring a troubling new wave in western states that has hit El Paso, a region that is… saved the deadly delta wave that rocked the rest of the state in August and September.
“We’re definitely in a better place right now than we’ve been in a long time,” said Chris Van Deusen, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services. “But we’re starting to see things change a little bit again. And you know, if there’s one thing we know about this pandemic, it’s that it will continue to change.”
The holidays present new opportunities for COVID-19 to spread as families gather — many of them for their first Thanksgiving together in two years, Van Deusen said.
“We don’t expect another peak as high as in late summer, but I think we’re just a little vigilant and concerned,” said Van Deusen. “As people mix more, it’s inevitable.”
Meanwhile, a persistent shortage of vaccines in the rest of the world means that a virus variant can still emerge and contribute to a new wave here.
And while hospital intensive care units have more beds available than they’ve reported in months, the return of flu season and a spate of respiratory outbreaks could put new pressures on hospitals already decimated by staff shortages and three coronavirus spikes. – so that precious possibly few beds available should a new COVID-19 peak strike.
Every day of good news, it seems, brings with it a warning.
According to officials, the millions of Texans who have not been vaccinated are most at risk. During the month of September, at the height of the wave, when about half of Texans were fully vaccinated, unvaccinated people were 20 times more likely to die from the virus than those who had been vaccinated.
What that means, scientists say, is that a wave of unvaccinated people could still happen.
“Overall, our projections are fairly optimistic for the state of Texas at this point,” said Spencer Fox, associate director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. “But looking at the winter, we’re still quite concerned about what might happen in the future. … Our models suggest that our population is still sufficiently susceptible to another pandemic wave if we remove all precautions. I think Thanksgiving will be a harbinger of things to come.”
Peak in the West
While Texas and states to the north and east are seeing similar signs of slowing down after the summer surge, hospitals in western states such as New Mexico and Colorado and as far north as Michigan are filling up with COVID-19 patients as the region experiences the wave it largely missed in late summer.
This is the prevailing theory behind the rising number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths in El Paso, which officials say is more prone to community spread in Western states than trends in the rest of Texas.
“Geographically, they are much closer to Santa Fe and the cities that are just below the border in Mexico, and parts of New Mexico, than they are to other parts of the state of Texas,” said Dr. David Lakey, the former health commissioner and now chief medical officer of the University of Texas System. “And so they seem to be following more in those areas.”
State health data shows that in the El Paso region, the number of daily new confirmed cases has risen by 76% in the past two weeks, compared to a decline in most other major counties in the state.
Drops in new cases are seen in Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Denton and Collin counties. In Cameron County, the number of cases has fallen by 21%.
Hospitals in El Paso and surrounding areas report that approximately 13% of their beds are used by COVID-19 patients. That is 4% statewide.
On Saturday, Nov. 13, El Paso County reported 627 new confirmed cases, the highest number in a single day since early February.
At least some of that is likely due to hubris on the part of El Pasoans who thought they were out of the woods after avoiding summer’s wave in the rest of the state and recording high vaccination rates, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said. .
But the locals have a high rate of diabetes and cancer which makes them more likely to get sick if they contract the virus, so an increase among those not vaccinated is likely to end in a worse illness and more hospitalizations than a more typical population, Samaniego said.
“I think what happened is that we’ve gotten pretty cocky,” he said. “We said, ‘We’ve been vaccinated, we’re number one, we don’t have to worry.’ … It’s human nature. You’re about two feet from the goal line and you just relax. We’re in such a hurry to put it behind us, that’s going to be our downfall.”
The Panhandle is also seeing an increase in hospital admissions, with 10% of the area’s hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients. There are also new cases in that area, especially around Amarillo, just over 100 miles from the state’s border with New Mexico.
Lakey said other areas prone to another wave are the ones with the lowest vaccination coverage, including many rural counties.
“I think things are much better now than they were in September,” Lakey said. “But it depends where in the state you are. … I wouldn’t be surprised if they are hit hard again in East Texas, an area with the lowest vaccination coverage in the country.”
Reason for optimism
But while health experts warn that the pandemic is far from over, they also point to some reasons for optimism.
Two new drugs are coming soon that Lakey said could dampen the impact of the virus. Pfizer and Merck antiviral pills include: about to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, which has been shown to drastically reduce hospitalizations and deaths from the virus.
More than 72,000 Texans have died from COVID-19, but the seven-day average of daily deaths has fallen dramatically from earlier this summer. At the end of September, the state averaged about 300 deaths a day. Now that number is around 80 per day.
More than 90% of the state’s elderly residents, who are most vulnerable to hospitalization and death from the vaccine, have received at least one shot, Lakey said. About 2.5 million Texans got their booster, according to state health numbers.
Another encouraging sign is that while the vaccination coverage of children ages 5-11 is still below national numbers, more than a quarter of a million Texas children in that age group have received at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, Van Deusen said. .
“I think we always want to see that higher than it is, but that’s progress,” he said. “And of course the concern about health effects is less for that population, but there is still a concern that children can get the virus and pass it on to others, especially if they get together with grandparents and elderly relatives during the holidays.”
Van Deusen and others said taking precautions, such as masking especially vulnerable people and limiting extensive close contact with them whenever possible — along with getting vaccinations and booster shots — could help prevent another winter wave.
“I think these kinds of basic precautions still have a place, even as more and more people are getting vaccinated, until we can really address this better,” he said.
Samaniego said Texas is now at a critical juncture, on the brink of the holiday season, and he challenged residents to stay vigilant rather than ignore the warning signs.
“We’re at that point, and which way are we going?” said Samaniego. “Killing the dragons while they’re babies is a lot easier than if they’re big enough to breathe fire.”
Chris Essig contributed to this report.
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