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State health officials urge Texans to stay vigilant even as COVID-19 cases begin to drop

A computer rendering of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Radoslav Zilinsky
/
Getty Images
A computer rendering of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

State health officials are growing more confident that the peak of Omicron infections in Texas is in the rearview mirror. But they are still urging the public to proceed with cautious optimism as the threat of COVID-19 will linger for some time.

After cases plateaued for much of January, infections over the previous week are down about one-third compared to what there were in the previous seven days, said Chris Van Deusen, the director of media relations at Texas Department of State Health Services.

“We’re certainly getting a lot more confident that it looks like we have reached the peak and the peak is in the past,” he said Tuesday, when the case count was current as of Sunday.

Van Deusen said the data is based on PCR tests, which are more sensitive than at-home antigen tests. Those showed a positivity rate just below 30%. That’s still very high, he said, though a considerable drop off from last month.

“We were over 35% for a couple of weeks in early, mid-January,” he said, adding that hospitalizations across the state have also dipped.

“That’s sort of what we’d expect to see. Usually, you start to see cases either go up or go down and hospitalizations follow," he said.

The statewide trend is mirrored in some of the state’s largest metro areas. Dr. Philip Huang, the Dallas County Health Director told the county’s Commissioners Court on Tuesday that new cases and hospitalizations have decreased. However, he added the hospital system remains strained as emergency room visits, though on the decline, are near the peaks seen when the delta variant of COVID-19 was dominant.

“It's good news that it's declining and is declining pretty rapidly. But we still are at relatively high levels, so it is not an indication that we are out of the woods and everyone (can) just go back to normal,” Huang said.

In Houston, the city health authority, Dr. David Persse, said the data there also shows a decline in cases and hospitalizations.

“Pretty much every metric we look at — whether it be wastewater, positivity rate, hospitalizations — they’re all moving in the right direction,” he told Houston Public Media. “My only concern is sometimes folks sometimes over-interpret that.”

While a drop in cases and hospitalizations is good news, Persse said, the counts are still higher than previous waves.

“The numbers are all still moving in the right direction but they’re high,” he said. “The positivity rate in the county as well as the city are still in the 20s, so those are still high numbers.”

In the Lubbock area, over 20% of all hospital patients have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s held steady since the beginning of the year and is comparable to other high hospitalization peaks over the past two years.

Dr. Mike Ragain, chief medical officer at University Medical Center in Lubbock, said he does not think most people understand how dire the situation is. While the omicron variant is generally less severe for most people, that’s not the case for everyone. Especially in Lubbock, where less than half of the population is vaccinated against the virus.

Ragain said public apathy is fueling this surge. “People are totally tired of the pandemic,” he said.

Van Deusen said he’s hopeful the state’s positivity rate will get below 5 or 10% if current trends continue. But he echoed others in pleading for the Texans to not drop their guard.

“We still expect there to be many more infections as we continue this downtrend,” he said. “Hopefully it’ll be less and less everyday but that doesn’t mean there is zero risk out there.”

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.

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