The rate of people testing positive for COVID-19 at University of Texas Medical Branch facilities tripled from about 5 percent of samples to 15 percent over the past week, an increase that has medical branch officials warning Galveston has joined the rest of the country in a variant-driven spike.
The increase is being blamed on the omicron variant of the virus, which in a few weeks has become the dominant strain of the virus being detected at medical branch facilities, said Dr. Janak Patel, the director of Infection Control and Healthcare Epidemiology at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
“This is local and this is real,” Patel said on Monday.
The increase also is apparent in the number of cases being reported, which rose from less than 50 to more than 400 in less than a week.
The jump in cases came on suddenly. Local hospitals still are reporting low numbers of COVID patients relative to other points of the pandemic.
“We tripled our positivity rate within a week,” Patel said. “Not even a week. Just in five days.”
He called the jump in the positivity rate “mind- boggling.”
The jump speaks to the highly infectious nature of the variant, Patel said.
In terms of sheer numbers, active cases in Galveston County still are near their lowest points of the pandemic, which is now in its 21st month. Hospitalizations in Galveston County are similarly low compared to earlier points in the pandemic.
But the number of cases being reported by local health agencies is unquestionably growing.
The number of active cases of COVID-19 has increased by 285 people in the past week, the greatest one-week increase in active cases since late August.
The medical branch, which operates facilities in Brazoria, Galveston and Harris counties, diagnosed more than 450 cases on Saturday and Sunday, Patel said.
“The weekend is supposed to be light,” Patel said.
The weekend before that, fewer than 50 cases were diagnosed at medical branch facilities, he said.
The medical branch has seen a 25 percent increase in patients in the past week, Patel said.
The rise in cases locally also is being seen in the Houston region and nationally. On Sunday, Houston Methodist announced that 82 percent of its cases were now the omicron variant.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control on Monday said 73 percent of new cases nationally were the omicron variant, a nearly six-fold increase over the week before.
Much about the omicron variant remains unknown, including whether it causes more or less severe illness. Early studies suggest the vaccinated will need a booster shot for the best chance at preventing omicron infection. But even without the extra dose, vaccination still should offer strong protection against severe illness and death, The Associated Press reported.
Patel said the medical branch was optimistic omicron wouldn’t overwhelm the local health care system but said it depends on whether omicron infections start taking hold in higher-risk groups, like older people or the immunocompromised.
In past waves of the COVID virus, increases in cases have preceded drastic increases in hospitalizations, followed by another increase in deaths. The late-summer wave of the virus, which was attributed to the delta strain, killed more than 150 people in Galveston County.
Patel said the vast majority of people going into medical branch hospitals for treatment because of COVID were unvaccinated.
About 55 percent of Galveston County residents have received at least two doses of the COVID-19 vaccinations.
Patel urged people to get booster shots to give themselves the greatest possible protection from the virus and its serious side effects. The best way to avoid contracting the virus is to be vaccinated, avoid large gatherings of people in indoor spaces, especially if people are unvaccinated or if their vaccination status is unknown, and to wear face masks when around other people, Patel said.