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Bexar County officials urge partying public to be cautious and avoid hospitals for minor health issues as Omicron surges

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff is joined by San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar on New Year's Eve outside of University Hospital on Medical Drive to discuss the surge of the Omicron variant.
Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff is joined by San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar on New Year's Eve outside of University Hospital on Medical Drive to discuss the surge of the Omicron variant.

Hospitals are not the place to get a COVID-19 test, Bexar County and San Antonio health officials said Friday. Cases driven by the Omicron variant are rising, and civic leaders asked residents to reduce their contact with others as the year comes to a close.

The San Antonio area’s COVID-19 hospitalizations have nearly doubled since Dec. 22 when the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals stood at 180. As of Friday, it had reached 352 across Bexar County. The surge in cases comes asthousands of San Antonians are expected to gather in downtown to ring in 2022.

The emergency waiting rooms at the county owned University Hospital and at medical facilities are seeing a sharp increase of people seeking treatment, so health officials asked the public to visit hospitals for only serious medical problems.

“We are asking everyone to help us preserve our capacity and allow hospitals to care for more patients that need treatment for things like trauma, heart attacks, strokes and other serious conditions,” said Dr. Brian Alsip, chief medical officer of University Health.

He added that minor COVID-19 cases and suspicions of infection should be handled elsewhere and not the emergency room.

“If you develop COVID symptoms, please call your primary care provider for instructions on how to get tested or use one of the community testing facilities available. Emergency departments are not the place to seek further testing,” Alsip said.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said many of his own family and friends have come down with COVID-19 in recent weeks.

“Never before during this two year pandemic have I had so many family members and so many friends come down with COVID. It is spreading and spreading fast, and I think it will probably get a lot worse before it gets better,” he said.

Nursing staff, embattled by more than 20 months of providing COVID-19 care, are stretched thin. Hospitals across Bexar County expected to receive about 411 contracted support nurses from the state on Monday, Wolff said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also requested the assistance of the Biden administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. Although the governor has made no public statements about the omicron surge, in a letter released Friday afternoon, Abbott accused the Biden administration of cutting supplies.

"While the Biden administration has cut supplies of monoclonal antibody treatments and testing kits when they are needed most, the State of Texas is urging the federal government to step up in this fight and provide the resources necessary to help protect Texans.” the letter read. “Testing sites, additional medical staff, and continued shipments of therapeutics from the federal government will help us continue to save lives and mitigate the spread of COVID-19."

The Biden administration has promised the production of a half billion tests, which would be distributed to states in the coming weeks.

In his letter, Abbott requested the help of FEMA to set up testing sites in the San Antonio, Houston, Dallas-Ft. Worth, and Rio Grande Valley areas to reduce the spread of infections.

Wolff said Bexar County’s Freeman Coliseum is still providing monoclonal antibody treatment for some cases which require a doctor’s order. However, he was unsure of the stock remaining or how many people sought treatment as of Friday morning.

The New Year’s Eve celebration and fireworks in downtown San Antonio were still scheduled for Friday evening, as planned, despite the rise in coronavirus cases. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg encouraged people not to gather in large clusters in any setting, indoors or outdoors.

“If people exercise the precautions that we have been talking about for months, weeks, over a year now with regard to what mask wearing and making use of the vaccinations that are available to us, it does not become a superspreader. A superspreader can happen in your own living room if you don’t take your own precautions,” he said.

The event was expected to attract tens of thousands of people. It is sponsored by the City of San Antonio but managed and operated by the San Antonio Parks Foundation.

COVID-19 testing sites and vaccination clinics will remain open over the holiday weekend, with multiple sites set up throughout Bexar County. As of Dec. 15, 66% of Bexar County is fully vaccinated with at least two doses.

As for the remaining one third of the population that is not fully vaccinated, Wolff and other leaders encouraged fully vaccinated people to personally urge them to get those remaining shots.

“Eighty percent of our hospitalizations are unvaccinated. So I would say to you, if you got an unvaccinated friend, try to talk them into getting it or stay the hell away from them,” Wolff said.

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Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules