As Hospitals See Holiday Spike, a New COVID Variant Hits Texas and Immunizations Ramp Up

Dallas County officials along with Health and Human Services Director Dr. Philip Huang scout the new vaccine center at Fair Park last week.
Dallas County officials along with Health and Human Services Director Dr. Philip Huang scout the new vaccine center at Fair Park last week. Judge Clay Jenkins Twitter, @JudgeClayJ
Saturday marked an all-time high for new cases of COVID-19 in Dallas County. For the first time, positive cases breached 3,000, raising the new daily average to 2,104. About 23% of all emergency room visits are COVID-19 related.

UTSouthwestern’s COVID tracking model released on Jan. 7 accurately projected this spike, and unfortunately warns that this week likely be worse and that the number of positive cases would increase to roughly 3,500 per day by Jan. 19.

Their models say the current surge is a result of Christmas travel, but mobility data shows people actually traveled more on New Year's Eve/Day than on Dec. 24-25. Since most patients who need critical care show up to hospitals two weeks after being infected, expect this Thursday, Jan. 14, to see new highs in hospitalizations.

UTSouthwestern is also seeing an increase in cases of those 60 years and older, who typically require longer hospitalization times.

According to Dallas County Health and Human Services, over the past 30 days there have been 5,309 COVID-19 cases in school-aged children and staff at 677 separate K-12 schools in Dallas County, including 454 staff members.

Two other developing factors are a race to administer vaccinations and a new strain of coronavirus that started in England and has hopped the pond.

The first case of the new strain of COVID-19 was documented in Harris County last week. The commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, Dr. John Hellerstedt, said in a statement that the patient had no prior travel history, meaning the variant is likely already circulating.

Dr. Hana El Sahly is an associate professor of molecular virology and microbiology and part of the Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit at Baylor College of Medicine. In terms of how this strain reacts to the vaccine, she says things look good.

“There are data emerging that the new SARS-CoV-2 variant from the UK remains susceptible to the antibodies generated by some of the vaccines that have been in testing. More data should be forthcoming soon,” she told the Observer.

El Sahly says that while the UK variant's contagiousness seems higher, that is not yet confirmed. “There are many variables that need to be taken into account: population dynamics, population susceptibility and genetics. None of these variables have been studied or published. What we can say is that the UK variant is at least as ‘fit’ to spread as the older variant. Hospital admissions and deaths from the UK variant also seem comparable to the older variant.”

As of last week, more than 85,000 Dallas County frontline medical workers and staff and residents at long-term care facilities had received their first dose of the vaccine. Last week, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said the county expects to get at least 2,000 more doses a day this week, a number that will continue to grow exponentially as more pharmaceutical companies develop vaccines and ramp-up production. In all, he expects to reach a threshold of 70% vaccine coverage, theoretically enough for herd immunity, by fall.

On Monday, the county's first scalable mass immunization center opened at Fair Pair. Jenkins said he expected thousands of people to receive doses of the vaccine at the center this week. Getting a shot there requires an appointment, which can be made online.

Jenkins encourages Dallas County residents to sign up in multiple places, including with any medical facility they’ve been a patient at over the past three years. The Fair Park facility is an effort to immunize residents of southern Dallas who do not have a medical home or health insurance.

Anyone can register on the county's website to get vaccinated. Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services, said last week that right now vaccines are extremely limited and they will contact you when it's your turn, but please be patient.  Anyone who shows up to a location without an appointment will be turned away.

Jenkins also said that any community members who do not have access to the internet or need help registering on the site can visit a public library to use a device and register. 
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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.