Although a new wave of COVID-19 cases is a cause for stress in some parts of the country this holiday week, cases in Galveston County still are near their lowest points of the pandemic.
But after a period of steep decreases, new cases and new hospitalizations from the virus have started to plateau in Galveston County. At other times in the pandemic, such a phenomenon has preceded a new rise in cases. It’s time to watch out for another local rise, local health experts said.
“Our cases are down and hospitalizations are really down — that’s all really, really good news,” said Galveston County Local Health Authority Dr. Philip Keiser. “But we’re beginning to a see a little bit of an uptick.”
The latest wave of local COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations peaked in September and dropped quickly through October. In recent weeks, the drop has leveled off.
The Galveston County Health District has reported about 30 new local cases of COVID-19 every day since Oct. 30. The plateau is similar with local hospitalizations. Since Nov. 10, an average of about 20 people were being treated each day for COVID-19 in local hospitals, according to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council.
The numbers of new cases, active cases and hospitalizations are low compared to most periods during the pandemic.
Dr. Gulshan Sharma, the chief medical officer at the University of Texas Medical Branch, said the county is in a much better place than it was exactly a year ago, when cases were on the rise, vaccines were yet to be approved and treatments, like monoclonal antibodies, weren’t yet widely available.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Sharma said.
Galveston County, Texas and much of the rest of the southern United States have avoided the type of COVID-19 spike that has occurred in other parts of the country.
Over the past month, there have been major outbreaks in Minnesota, Michigan, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire. The spikes have been blamed in part on colder weather forcing people inside where the virus spreads more easily; on waning effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines; and on the continued vulnerability of unvaccinated people, who are more likely to catch and spread the virus and more likely to be hospitalized and to die after contracting it.
A majority of Americans, Texans and Galveston County residents are vaccinated against COVID-19, but a significant number of people remain at the greatest risk because they’ve neither been vaccinated nor been previously infected.
“It’s kind of hard to think we’ll escape it,” Keiser said of a winter trend of rising cases. “There’s still a significant number of people at risk.”
The virus has confounded experts before and could behave unpredictably in coming months.
“It is very hard to predict anything about this virus,” Sharma said. “It would be foolish if we are making any predictions.”
About 189,600 Galveston County residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and at least 54,100 residents have been infected. That leaves about 100,000 county residents in the unvaccinated and uninfected group, Keiser said. About 70 percent of the county has some sort of immunity to the virus, according to official statistics.
Health officials once pointed to the 70 percent mark as the goal to reach herd immunity, when a population is effectively immune enough to stop widespread outbreaks of a virus. Over time, however, federal health officials have nudged that goal post higher.
The changing target has to do with a number of things, Keiser said. The earliest estimates for herd immunity changed when the more infectious delta variant emerged. Some health experts now believe the goal for herd immunity might be closer to 90 percent, which would mean the virus is as infectious as the measles virus, Keiser said.
The best thing people can do is get vaccinated, get booster shots and practice COVID safety measures, especially around unvaccinated people and large groups, Keiser said.
Last week, federal authorities approved Pfizer and Moderna booster shots for all people over the age of 18. To date, more than 39,000 people in Galveston County have received booster shots.