How worried should Galveston County be about recent increases in cases of COVID-19?
After two local school districts announced they would close campuses because of potential mass exposures to the virus and reports of large numbers of cases being reported in Texas, Galveston County’s local health authority Phillip Keiser said residents should continue to be careful but not panicked.
“As we saw from last night, it’s very difficult to predict the future,” Keiser said, comparing the uncertainty of local COVID rates to Tuesday’s election.
New cases of COVID-19 are reaching critical levels in some parts of Texas.
In El Paso last week, county officials announced they would defy Gov. Greg Abbott and order businesses closed as new daily cases topped more than 3,000. Texas on Tuesday announced more than 8,400 new cases in the state, the highest single-day total since August.
On Tuesday, Galveston County appeared to headed to a similarly bad place. The trouble mostly was a data error, however, not an infection spike, officials said Wednesday.
The health district reported more than 13 percent of tests collected between Oct. 25 and Oct. 31 were positive for COVID-19. That meant the rate had grown higher even as more tests were reported and was higher than the rates seen when new cases exploded in June and July.
At the same time, Galveston and High Island school districts announced they would close some school buildings because students or staff members had been diagnosed with the virus and potentially exposed other people to infection.
On Wednesday, however, the health district revised its figures.
The revision was necessary after thousands of negative test results, which had been inadvertently omitted, were added to the week’s total, Keiser said.
Because of a coding error, the district’s public reporting system wasn’t tabulating negative tests. That error was corrected Wednesday, dropping the positivity rate to below 5 percent.
The change left Keiser feeling “OK, but still a little nervous,” he said.
People should continue limiting their COVID-19 risks, Keiser said. While weekly positivity rates were adjusted downward, the number of active cases in the county has increased to 855 after reaching a low of 616 in October.
“The numbers are still going up,” Keiser said. “We’re kind of in a period of slow and steady growth.”
The health district hasn’t identified one central reason for the increases in the past month. County contact tracers have not connected the rise to the reopening of bars or the increases to students being inside classrooms. There was no correlation between new cases and people who voted during the early voting period, Keiser said.
A greater density of cases is being identified in the League City and Friendswood areas, Keiser said. More of the cases are being identified among white residents, he said.
Rather than a central event or location, Keiser said he believed the increases were caused by people falling out of the habit of taking precautions such as wearing face masks and avoiding large gatherings.
“It just seems to me that this is kind of a general COVID fatigue,” Keiser said. “It’s pretty much all over the county that we’re seeing our cases.”
Galveston County is “nowhere near” the situation El Paso is in, Keiser said. He wasn’t calling for local leaders to take extra steps, beyond measures already in place, to limit the spread of the virus, he said.
The rise in cases hasn’t led to an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Fewer than 50 people a day have been reported hospitalized for COVID-19 since Oct. 6, according to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council. In late July, more than 200 people in the county were hospitalized each day.
People should check themselves and their behaviors to avoid greater spread in the community, Keiser said.
“I feel like this is the time to get the message out, because this is the time when we still can get people to change their behavior and pull back a little bit on the risk,” Keiser said.