Texas sees first post-vaccination spike in COVID cases as Delta variant gains traction
Health professionals and Gov. Greg Abbott's office are urging unvaccinated Texans to get their shots to tame latest the latest COVID outbreak.
AUSTIN — Texas is seeing its first post-vaccination spike in COVID-19 cases with the new Delta variant driving the upswing and people who are not fully vaccinated bearing the worst of it, state health professionals say.
New confirmed cases, as well as hospitalizations, have been trending up since late June, but far below the pace of last summer when the deadly and highly contagious virus was straining resources and brought the economy to a screeching standstill.
The present trend is manageable but worrisome, said one Texas hospital official. But perhaps the most maddening component is that rise in cases could be easily avoided, he added.
"We find ourselves having to again gear up to deal with another surge with the knowledge it's entirely, at this point, preventable with vaccinations," said Dr. Wesley Long, an infectious disease expert and and director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist Hospital.
On Tuesday, nearly 200 patients were hospitalized for COVID in Houston Methodist, which emerged as one of the nation's leading treatment facilities for the virus. As of Sunday, just over 3,000 COVID patients were hospitalized statewide, according to the most recently available state figures.
But the state's numbers were far different a year ago, or even six months ago. On July 21, 2020, Texas hospital were caring for 10,893 COVID patients. That was the summertime high. The winter peak arrived Jan. 11 at 14,218. Hospitalizations began dropping dramatically through mid-March and leveled off until reaching their low in more than a year on June 27 when only 1,428 COVID patients were in Texas hospitals.
The latest jump in COVID cases has many Texas hospitals worried, according to a statewide advocacy group.
"This spike is incredibly concerning," said Carrie Williams, spokeswoman for the Texas Hospital Association. "The hospitalization numbers are going up exponentially. The key issue for us right now is that we have a burned-out workforce, and we have people in the general public who, frankly, wants to believe that it's over. And it's clearly not."
Chris Van Duesen, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said his office does not collect vaccination-rate data on hospitalized COVID patients but said anecdotal reports from around the state show that around 96% or more of people in hospitals because of COVID had not been fully vaccinated.
Texas, like many parts of the nation, had been enjoying its return to a normal summer after more than a year of ever-escalating COVID caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths. But that complacency was interrupted last weekend when the Austin American-Statesman reported that three of the nearly 60 Democratic state House members who fled in protest to Washington, D.C., had tested positive for CIVID despite being fully vaccinated.
By Monday, six members had tested positive.
The state remains below the national average for full vaccinations, but the rates for most of the state's urban counties – and many of the hard-hit border counties – were above or nearing 60% as of this week.
Van Deusen said that unlike summer spike of last year, which coincided with easing of restrictions as Memorial Day weekend approached, the present uptick cannot be conclusively tied to the recent Fourth of July holiday weekend that became something of a COVID recovery celebration.
"It’s really about the Delta variant spreading so much more easily," he said, adding that his agency is in the process of compiling data to quantify Delta's share of Texas' overall COVID caseload.
Health professionals say mask-wearing and social-distancing should still be practiced by people not fully vaccinated for COVID-19. However, Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the remaining mask mandates in March and expressly prohibited cities and counties from issuing new ones. Most major retailers have also gone to mask-optional policies in recent weeks.
Abbott's spokesman Renea Eze on Tuesday echoed the governor's ongoing call for Texans to set aside lingering concerns about getting vaccinated and noted that state officials have been aggressively pushing for as many doses coming to Texas as possible.
“Vaccines are the most effective defense against contracting COVID and becoming seriously ill, and we continue to urge all eligible Texans to get the vaccine," Eze said, adding that "the COVID vaccine will always remain voluntary and never forced in Texas.”
Long, the Harris Methodist infectious disease expert, said most of those who contract the virus after being vaccinated avoid the harrowing effects of the virus, including death.
"By and large, the vast majority of people we are seeing with severe illness are unvaccinated," Long said. "So are the people being admitted to the hospital or to the ICU."
Many of the others who are vaccinated have come to the hospital for a different reason and take a COVID test as a matter of routine had no idea they were carrying the virus, Long said.
"They find out they're positive for COVID and are sort of shock, even with the Delta variant, (because) they have no symptoms at all or only mild symptoms," Long said. "It's sort of like, 'I thought I had allergies.'"
John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.