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Health Experts Warn A Potential 'Tsunami' Of COVID Cases Is On The Horizon

People getting COVID-19 vaccinations at a vaccination site in Williamson County in March. The number of COVID-19 cases have risen "exponentially" there in recent weeks, says one local health official.
Gabriel C. Pérez
People getting COVID-19 vaccinations at a vaccination site in Williamson County in March. The number of COVID-19 cases have risen "exponentially" there in recent weeks, says one local health official.

From Texas Standard:

A new wave of COVID-19 cases is approaching Texas. In some ways, it’s already here, with the state recently reporting a positivity rate of over 10% – something not seen here since February.

Two Texas experts say what’s on the horizon may not just be a wave, but a tsunami of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, fueled by the delta variant and pockets of unvaccinated people across the state. Ben Neuman, biologist and Global Health Research Complex chief virologist at Texas A&M University, and Allison Stewart, lead epidemiologist for Williamson County and Cities Health District, spoke with Texas Standard about new COVID-19 trends, what to expect in the coming months and how Texans can protect themselves.

Rising hospitalizations and exponential spread in Williamson County:

Stewart told Texas Standard cases in her county, just north of Austin, have surged – up to 15 cases for every 100,000 people in the last two-and-a-half weeks. Before that, it was only two positive cases for every 100,000 people. Hospitalizations are also rising. She says the majority of cases are among unvaccinated people.

“Since March, about 97% of our cases have been [among] people who aren’t fully vaccinated,” Stewart said. “We’re seeing some really increasing trends, both in incidents in the community and in hospitalization rates where hospitalization rates have more than doubled in about the last 12 days.”

Younger people are more at risk:

People age 18-30 are less likely to be vaccinated, Stewart says, so cases among them are rising more quickly than in other groups. Those even younger, below age 12, are also more at risk because they aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine. Stewart says research is showing that children can get so-called long-haul COVID just like adults.

‘Breakthrough’ cases are possible:

A small proportion of fully vaccinated people have been infected with the new coronavirus. Neuman told Texas Standard that’s to be expected because the vaccine provides about 90% protection. That means approximately 1 million vaccinated Texans are vulnerable to infection.

Cases are vastly undercounted:

Epidemiologists estimate the number of new coronavirus cases is approximately five- to tenfold what is being reported by the state, Newuman says. That’s because testing is infrequent and inconsistent across Texas.

Masks in schools will help:

Both Neuman and Stewart encourage parents to have their kids wear masks when school starts in the fall, even though Texas schools can’t mandate mask-wearing. Masks will be especially important to protect kids who are too young or unable to get vaccinated.

“Masks are by far the best option; they’re the one thing that actually works,” Neuman said. “I think you really can’t be opening schools without masks and expect anything other than a lot more cases.”

Masks are a good idea for adults, too:

Neuman and Stewart say Texans let their guard down too early when it came to COVID-19 protections. Even with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance in May that unvaccinated people don’t need to wear masks indoors, Stewart, who’s fully vaccinated, says she still wears hers in public places with strangers.

”I also have young children in my house that are still susceptible,” she said. “That’s the right choice for me, and I would recommend it for most people right now, considering the level of community transmission that we have.”

It’s not too late to get vaccinated:

The good news is vaccines are widely available, effective and free, Stewart says.

“We do have a really effective tool right now that’s available, widely available, to everyone over the age of 12,” she said. “What’s holding you back? Like, let’s get you vaccinated; let’s get you protected!”

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Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.
Michael Marks
Caroline Covington is Texas Standard's digital producer/reporter. She joined the team full time after finishing her master's in journalism at the UT J-School. She specializes in mental health reporting, and has a growing interest in data visualization. Before Texas Standard, Caroline was a freelancer for public radio, digital news outlets and podcasts, and produced a podcast pilot for Audible. Prior to journalism, she wrote and edited for marketing teams in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. She has a bachelor's in biology from UC Santa Barbara and a master's in French Studies from NYU.
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