Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022 2:18 p.m.

AUSTIN — One in four COVID-19 tests in Texas are returning positive, the highest positivity rate the state has seen since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, according to state data.

As of Dec. 29, the state reported a seven-day positivity rate of 26.49% for the molecular test. The previous highest positivity rate was 20.43% in January 2021.

The news comes as the omicron variant — which health officials say is more contagious but less severe for the vaccinated than other variants — continues to spread through communities.

“Positivity rates are at all-time highs and cases are climbing close to the peak of September’s surge,” the Texas Department of State Health Services said in a tweet following the news. “Get fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID.”

Meanwhile, the seven-day positivity rate for antigen tests is 16.49%. The highest rate for these tests was set in July 2020 at 25%. Of the 94,500 tests conducted on Dec. 29, about two-thirds were molecular tests, which are more sensitive than antigen rapid tests.

TDSHS and other state health leaders continue to advocate that individuals get vaccinated and boosted when eligible, as well as implement other health measures like frequent hand washing, wearing masks around others and staying 6 feet apart when possible.

Hospitalizations are on the rise in Texas with more than 5,500 adults and children hospitalized with the disease. The number has nearly doubled over the past month, data shows.

Texas medical professionals said of those hospitalized with COVID-19, the vast majority are unvaccinated.

“We are now dealing with what is essentially vaccine preventable disease.” said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, infectious disease specialist with UTHealth Houston/Memorial Hermann. “We would not be seeing this large influx of patients in the hospital if we have higher acceptance of the [vaccines].”

Friday, Dec. 31, 2021 7 a.m.

Hospital systems in Texas find themselves again preparing for a major spike and in worst case scenarios, overrun hospitals, as the pandemic enters its third calendar year and the omicron variant spreads.

The new variant — which has been found to be highly transmissible but less severe for the vaccinated than other COVID-19 variants — now accounts for 41.5% to 74% of all cases nationwide, according to data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. First reported in South Africa, omicon arrived in Texas on Dec. 6.

“All indications point to a lesser severity of omicron versus delta,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease advisor, in a White House briefing. “[But] we should not become complacent.”

In Texas, cases and hospitalizations are on the rise yet again quickly filling hospital beds and frustrating health care workers.

The number of hospitalized people was nearly 5,000 as of Dec. 28, up from 2,700 just a month earlier, with about one-fourth of current patients admitted in the previous 24 hours, according to state data.

Staffed adult beds statewide sit at 475, it said.

Dr. Luis Ostrosky, infectious disease specialist with UT Health Houston/Memorial Hermann, said since the beginning of December, the number of hospitalizations in the Houston area have increased four-fold.

Ostrosky said while his hospital system is better suited to handle increased hospitalizations with triggers in place to address supply and staffing needs, the situation still is demoralizing for staff, especially as the vast majority of hospitalized individuals are unvaccinated.

“We are now dealing with what is essentially vaccine preventable disease.” Ostrosky said. “We would not be seeing this large influx of patients in the hospital if we have higher acceptance of the vaccination, so it's kind of like an avoidable tragedy every time we see a patient in the hospital.”

Similar safeguards have been put in place at Baylor Scott & White Health, one of the largest hospital systems in the state.

Baylor Scott & White Director of Media Relations Deke Jones said it too is working to ensure its locations have adequate staffing, supplies, equipment and capacity to cater the anticipated increase of patients in the coming weeks.

“Our COVID-19 staffing preparation efforts include continuously studying and forecasting our staffing levels and deploying and recruiting team members,” Jones said. “Our staff are critical to our ability to continue responding to the pandemic.”

Jones added that while the hospital system is able to care for the number of COVID patients today, as well as those unrelated to the disease, it continues to advocate for safe health practices so that it does not find itself overrun.

“With the highly contagious Omicron variant of the virus in our communities, we each need to do our part in protecting our families and neighbors,” he said. “We urge the community to help us and each other by getting vaccinated, distancing and wearing a mask.”

Recent isolation changes by the CDC have also added to the confusion of how careful people need to be.

New isolation rules include a shortened isolation period from 10 days to five days if the individual is asymptomatic or their symptoms are resolving. Individuals should, however, continue to wear a mask for five additional days when in public, it said.

This change is due to recent studies that found that a majority of transmission happens in the first five days of infection, CDC officials said. It also allows workers to return in half the time. But it also came at a time when many Americans are gathering or planning to gather for major holiday events.

Because it is so transmissible, Ostrosky said he recommends people spend the holidays with only their nuclear families to help keep hospitalizations down.

“Our recommendation is not to gather,” Ostrosky said. “There's just too much viral activity in the community at this time to make any sort of indoor gathering safe.”

Ostrosky said that even as dropping cases in South Africa, where the omicron variant was first detected, give hope that infections will recede quickly after a spike, there are current disagreements on how mirrored it will be in America with different demographics.

He added that latest modeling from health experts show that Texas will see its omicron spike sometime in mid- to late-January. Because of this, he recommends individuals keep their circles small and get vaccinated or boosted as soon as possible.

“There are still too many people unvaccinated, too many people who are not boosted, too many people with high risk factors in our demographics. And just by sheer numbers–even if it's a small percentage of people that end up in the hospital–just by the amount of virus in the community, we're likely to hit saturation in the hospitals again,” Ostrosky said.

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