COVID-19 is still spreading in Galveston County.
But for the past two weeks, it hasn’t been spreading as fast.
There has been a pronounced decrease in the number of daily COVID-19 cases since July 10, the day the Galveston County Health District reported a record 310 cases among county residents.
Since then, the number of new daily cases has dropped. Between July 17 and July 23, the health district reported an average of 168 cases a day. Statistically, that puts the county back to the level it was about June 29.
The recent drop in cases could be attributed to several factors, said Dr. Philip Keiser, Galveston County’s Local Health Authority.
“We definitely have had decrease in cases,” Keiser said. “Overall, it looks like the numbers are coming down. If you plot it by events, the Fourth of July weekend, the governor’s mask order, what you see is that there is a real trend toward things coming down after those things happened.”
The decrease in cases has corresponded with a drop in the rate of people testing positive as well.
During the seven days between July 17 and July 23, about 9.4 percent of COVID-19 tests in the county were positive. That’s down from the average weekly positivity rate of 12.5 percent recorded from June 29 and July 5.
The average positivity rate through Thursday was equivalent to the rates seen in Galveston County in the middle of June but was still a far cry from the 0.62 percent of tests that were coming back positive in the middle of May.
The downward trends began about two weeks after Galveston and other Texas cities, as well as state leaders, began taking action against a rise in COVID-19 cases.
Harris County began a mandatory mask order June 22. The city of Galveston followed suit a day later.
On June 26, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered bars closed and reduced the number of people that could be served inside restaurant dining rooms.
A statewide mask order went into effect July 2. On July 3, Galveston and other beach communities in Texas took the drastic step of forbidding or limiting access to beaches over the Fourth of July holiday.
There also is evidence that people in Galveston County have been traveling less and staying home more in recent weeks, Keiser said.
All those factors contribute to the drop in new cases, he said.
“The Fourth of July gave us a reboot,” Keiser said. “People are taking the governor’s mask order very seriously, and for the most part, I see people wearing masks all the time. And I also think that people aren’t moving around as much.”
Keiser isn’t alone in noting a slowing of COVID-19’s spread in Texas.
Abbott in public statements has been optimistic about the direction COVID-19 cases are headed statewide, and there was evidence his orders would be effective.
Earlier this week, he cited a University of North Texas study concluding in states that issued mask mandates in May, new cases dropped or rose only marginally in June; while states that didn’t issue mandates, including Texas, saw large increases in cases.
Abbott has resisted announcing more statewide restrictions, but he hasn’t ruled them out.
“COVID hasn’t gone away,” Abbott tweeted Friday. “But we won’t have to shut down if everyone will continue using safe distancing practices.”
There is reason to be cautious about using one criteria to define the status of COVID-19 efforts, however, Keiser said. While new cases announced each day have decreased sharply, other measures have declined more gradually.
“My concern about where we’re going is that we need to hold the line on what we’re doing,” Keiser said. “So far it’s working, but is it going to be enough? We’re just going to have to see how this trend goes.”
Even if cases continue to drop, Keiser still expected people to have to wear masks and maintain social distance until a vaccine is available, he said.
Hospitalization rates in the county have remained about the same, with local hospitals reporting many people in intensive care units being treated for COVID-19, Keiser said.
Intensive care units in Galveston County have been between 94 percent and 100 percent of their base capacities over the past seven days, according data reported by to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council. Up to 71 percent of ICU patients in the past week have been COVID-19 patients, according to the council.
“There are more people on vents than there has ever been,” said Keiser, a physician at the University of Texas Medical branch. “That’s not unexpected. You expect to see people to start showing symptoms in their first week.
“If they’re going to require hospitalization or get bad, that may occur in the second week. Then they get really sick within their third week, when they end up on the ventilator.”
New reported cases also have continued to outpace reported recoveries, although the county’s reported recovery numbers lag behind reality.
For the first time this week, the health district reported there were more than 5,000 active cases of COVID-19 in the county.
In reality, there are people who could be officially considered recovered but have not been verified to be, Keiser said.
There is a lag in reporting because the health district has been unable to follow up on every positive test.
Reported recoveries might increase in coming days as the health district begins to bring medical and nursing students and other people in as volunteers to help make more wellness check calls, Keiser said.
“We’ve caught up a lot with our investigation and our contact tracing, but we’re still behind with our wellness calls, where we call people up and clear them,” Keiser said. “We’re bringing on volunteers this week to help clear that.”