North Texas Medical Center in Gainesville has taken steps in response to a local uptick of COVID-19 hospitalizations, including canceling an in-person back-to-school event and putting restrictions on visitor access to patients.
NTMC Chief Executive Office Tom Sledge told county government and school officials last week that the hospital is handling 10-14 COVID-19 patients at any one time now, up from one to three in June and July.
“Hospital staffing and occupancy throughout the region is already challenging capacity, so it’s important to do what we can to keep this valuable community resource available for all medical needs – not just COVID,” Sledge said in the statement issued by Cooke County Judge Steve Starnes’ office. “With other regional hospitals seeing the same or even greater, surge it has become difficult and or near impossible to transfer patients from NTMC to other larger regional hospital partners.”
Starnes indicated that a local lockdown was not in the cards at present.
The judge said “keeping kids in school, providing parents the latitude to work so we can keep business and commerce going in Cooke County and keeping our hospital’s patient capacity as manageable as possible are our priorities. Our efforts should be focused to help our community move through this spike of COVID cases with as much normalcy as possible.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned into the pandemic of the unvaccinated as cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Texas began showing steeper jumps than past surges.
According to state records, the rolling seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases soared by more than 75% from last week and hospitalizations rose by more than 40%.
The spike is attributed to the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus, which can even be spread by those fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, said Dr. Lane Aiena, the director of Walker County COVID Medical Response.
“If you look at the bounce that’s starting, it looks like the bounce that was starting last winter,” Aiena said. “I think people were starting to warm up to the idea of getting the vaccine, but now that the Delta variant is around and people are seeing more people get sick, that’s what’s made them decide to go from ‘I’m going to get it eventually,’ to ‘I probably ought to get it today.’”
Still, any pivot in vaccine hesitancy in rural Texas hasn’t yet surfaced in statewide vaccine tracking.
North of Houston in Walker County, like each of the 10 CNHI Texas communities that span from Greenville in northeast Texas to Huntsville in southeast Texas, has yet to reach a 40% vaccination rate for residents older than 12.
Only 44.3% of all Texans, regardless of age, have been fully vaccinated, but the largest percentages of shots in arms have landed along the Mexico border and in major metropolitan regions.
“These numbers are very similar to our numbers from last July. That’s a very scary statistic,” said Dr. Brandy Ricard-Watson, the health advisor for Anderson County. “I know there are a lot of people with mistrust of the government and health officials, but I think this data speaks for itself.”
The delta variant has been viewed by health officials as the most contagious coronavirus mutation so far in the pandemic, but COVID-19 vaccines still provide strong protection against it.
Nearly all Texas hospitalizations and deaths are among the unvaccinated, according to state officials.
“Families are getting sicker quicker, when I have one patient get sick, the rest of the family is sick more often and more quickly, this is a more contagious strain,” Aiena said.
It’s not yet clear if the delta variant makes people more ill. But experts say it spreads more easily because of mutations that make it better at latching onto cells in our bodies.
“The comparison I’ve heard made often is that this is as contagious as chickenpox,” Aiena said. “Most people these days never had chickenpox, they had the vaccine, but back in the day, it would tear through families and classrooms. The amount of people that you’re going to infect with the Delta variant is significantly higher than it was with the Alpha variant.”
Back to school
With the virus in the early stages of a new wave, public schools are scheduled to open in Texas with limited COVID-19 regulations. Schools across the state have been barred by Gov. Greg Abbott from instituting mask mandates.
Many – including the Gainesville Independent School District – plan to strongly encourage facial coverings and will promote social distancing.
Vaccinations that protect most people from getting the coronavirus and limit the severity of the virus in those who become infected aren’t yet available to children younger than 12. That equates to almost every student in kindergarten through sixth grade or about half of the students in public school districts.
The return to school also arrives as health officials say they’re tracking increased hospitalizations of young adults and students with COVID-19 infections. Aiena noted that the elevated hospitalization rates in young people may be skewed because vaccination rates are higher in older populations.
According to state records, nearly every trauma service area in East Texas reports at least 10% of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients — a mark state leaders outlined as cause for concern early in the pandemic. Trauma Service L, which includes Bell, Coryell, Hamilton, Lampasas, Milam and Mills counties, has the highest COVID-19 hospitalization rate in the state at 17.89%.
Mike Eads is Editor of the Gainesville Daily Register. Joseph Brown is Editor of The Huntsville Item. Eads may be reached at email@example.com and (864) 356-1036.