Galveston County entered 2021 with COVID-19 spreading, reaching an infection rate last seen during the summer and forcing local hospitals to open extra space to accommodate patients.
But the county’s top health official said there are indications the spread might be slowing.
“When I look at last week’s numbers, I see a glimmer of hope,” said Dr. Phillip Keiser, Galveston County’s local health authority. “I don’t know whether it’s me, or whether it’s real.”
Although the health district has been reporting more than 200 new cases a day recently, the rate of new cases appears to be slowing, Keiser said.
Even if there’s a slow-down, the increased number of local cases is putting pressure on hospitals, Keiser said. On Wednesday, 125 people were being treated for COVID-19 in Galveston County hospitals, the highest one-day total since August.
Health officials have emphasized they can handle the number of people being treated for the virus.
The University of Texas Medical Branch this week opened an overflow space in Jennie Sealy Hospital but said that wasn’t an unusual move.
“While we do try to keep COVID-19 patients together on a unit, when demand is high, we do overflow some COVID-19 patients into adjacent medical-surgical or ICU units,” the medical branch said in a statement.
“This is not new and we’ve done this since the earliest days of the pandemic,” the medical branch said. “This allows for better and more efficient care and, thanks to our strong infectious disease training, all staff on those units are properly trained to care for COVID-19 patients and keep all patients on the unit safe.”
The number of people hospitalized by the virus in the Gulf Coast region last week prompted the state to order greater restrictions on businesses, including the mandatory closure of bars and greater limits on how many people can be allowed inside restaurants and retail establishments.
Eight days into those increased measures, hospitalization rates have not decreased enough to reverse those restrictions.
There have been pieces of good news. Thousands of people have started a course of vaccinations against the virus, and this week some providers began offering vaccinations to a wider range of the public, including people 65 and older and those with serious health conditions.
Health officials also have said they’re better prepared to treat people infected with the virus than they were in the earliest days of the pandemic.
Still, Keiser said it likely was that more local people will get seriously ill and die from COVID in coming weeks, even if new cases begin to slow.
“Even if we’ve crossed the hump, and I’m not sure we have, we can still see more hospitalizations and deaths,” Keiser said.
As of Thursday, 19,919 Galveston County residents had been diagnosed with COVID-19 since testing began in early March.
Of those, 15,587 people had recovered and 181 people had died, according to the Galveston County Health District.
There were 4,151 active cases of COVID-19 in the county. It was the most active cases in a single day since Aug. 16.
There were 4,631 new local cases of COVID-19 collected and identified in December, according to the health district. The number of December cases is likely to increase in coming days as more test results are reported.
December saw the second-highest number of new COVID-19 cases in the county during the pandemic — 5,460 local cases were identified in July.
As of Thursday, the health district had received the results of 256,720 COVID-19 tests.
The equivalent of 70 out of every 100 county residents have taken a COVID-19 test, although the county’s numbers include people who have taken multiple tests throughout the year.
Galveston County is among the most-tested counties per capita among Texas’ largest counties. Only McLennan, El Paso and Webb counties have tested more residents per capita than Galveston County, according to the Texas Department of State Health services.
The level of testing in the county has stayed relatively consistent in recent months. Since Oct. 30, the health district has reported the results of between 1,000 and 1,500 COVID-19 tests on average in periodic updates. The level of local testing isn’t as high as it was in July, when the district was reporting the results of more than 2,000 tests every day.
Over the past 10 months, the health district has connected 181 local residents’ deaths to COVID-19, including 14 deaths in December. The district doesn’t release personal information about people who died.
The highest death tolls have been in the county’s most populated cities. In League City, 56 residents have died with COVID-19. In Texas City, 45 people have died. In Galveston, there have been 32 deaths.
Of the 181 deaths, 157 have been people older than 60; 98 were men and 83 were women.
A disproportionate number of deaths have occurred in the county’s Hispanic residents. Whereas Hispanic residents make up 24 percent of the county’s population, they account for 57 percent of the COVID-related deaths in the county.
As of Thursday, Galveston County medical facilities, including pharmacies, hospitals and medical practices had received 6,475 doses of COVID-19 vaccinations, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Of those, 3,813 doses had been administered, according to the state data.
The health department estimated about 18,000 people qualified as highest-priority recipients, including health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.
Hundreds of thousands of county residents might be qualified to get vaccinations under the next phase of distribution, officials said. But it could be weeks until vaccinations are truly widely available.