UT Health system doctors are warning of rising COVID rates in East Texas not seen since 2020, fueled mostly by an increase of Delta variant cases among young, unvaccinated people.
Dr. Carla Wang-Kocik, pulmonary critical care doctor at UT Health Tyler, gave details into the increasing severity and changing demographics of new COVID cases at a meeting with reporters Friday morning.
Wang-Kocik, who rotates shifts at UT Health Tyler’s COVID unit, described a “heartbreaking” trend of young, otherwise healthy people suffering from Delta variant infections, some of whom required ventilators for upwards of three or four weeks.
The day of the interview, Wang-Kocik said the hospital patients included a 21-year-old on oxygen a 25-year-old on a ventilator. All of those hospitalized were unvaccinated patients.
“There’s one thing that unifies them all: a lack of vaccination,” Wang-Kocik said. “It keeps on being a trend. But you don’t have to be old or have multiple comorbidities (underlying conditions) to now get this strain.”
Case numbers in much of East Texas had steadily decreased for most of 2021, according to Department of State Health Services data, but surges within the past month have brought infection rates mirroring that of summer 2020.
The Delta variant is a mutation of COVID-19 with a larger viral load than previous COVID varieties, giving the variant a higher rate of infection, more aggressive symptoms and a greater chance of affecting healthy people.
“Before with the other variants, people got a little bit of the sniffles, headaches and maybe it just lasted a little bit, but they were back to normal,” Wang-Kocik said. “Maybe that continues to be the case for many, but having our unit with robust people becomes a little bit more alerting.”
Wang-Kocik said COVID can create alarming and dangerous symptoms on top of the virus itself. “By the time the person is admitted to the hospital, it’s mostly because they’re requiring high levels of oxygen or an associated organ is affected. Kidneys, brain or heart — all of these organs can be affected with COVID,” she said.
Since vaccines became widely available in East Texas, UT Health doctors have encountered more hospitalizations of people hesitant to take a COVID vaccine.
In the interview, Wang-Kocik recalled instances of speaking to hospitalized COVID patients who express remorse or embarrassment for not having taken the vaccine.
“We love our patients, we give them our heart, we give them our soul, we fight for them no matter what,” Wang-Kocik said. “But if we could go back in time, and just tell them, ‘Hey, just take this vaccine, you know, just take it, you’re not gonna suffer.’”
Even though the current surge in cases is fueled mostly by the unvaccinated, state authorities have scaled back mass vaccination distribution, partially due to lack of demand for doses.
UT Health East Texas ended their own state-sponsored vaccination hub in May, while under 40% of Smith county residents 12 and above have reached fully vaccinated status.
Dr. Thomas Cummins, UT Health East Texas’ chief medical officer, said the hospital system delivered around 60,000 doses from their former Smith County hub location until demand “dropped off significantly.”
“There should be a line of people wrapped around every Walgreens and CVS in East Texas giving out vaccines, and there just isn’t,” Cummins said. “We went from filling a 1,000 vaccine dose schedule in 30 minutes to not being able to fill it at all.”
What Wang-Kocik observed at one COVID unit in Tyler is taking place all around East Texas in larger and more rural hospitals, Cummins said. UT Health hospitals are reporting around a five to six-fold increase of positive cases since May, when infections were at their lowest.
Increasing hospitalizations due to COVID may have negative effects for other critical hospital functions, as more resources flow toward containing the pandemic and keeping COVID patients alive.
“Every institution is lacking those very skilled critical care nurses. That’s the difference right now. It’s not so much the bed availability or ventilator ability. But the nursing staff, we’re really short, said Wang-Kocik.
The trend reflects hospitals across the state. A U.S. Health and Human Services study estimates Texas will face the second largest nursing shortage in the country by 2030, according to current and projected demand for registered nurses.
Cummins said the shortage is already here, and COVID surges could put East Texas nurses in a bind.
“Previously the state helped supply nurses. It’s our understanding that they’re not going to do that again,” Cummins said. “These rising numbers are beginning to strain our ability to provide things like surgical procedures, and could potentially impact our ability to take care of heart attacks, strokes — things that are life threatening.”
While doctors like Wang-Kocik and Cummins continue to remind the public about vaccinations, mask-wearing and social distancing, state and local governments have loosened COVID restrictions after the advent of vaccines, giving Texans a taste of pre-pandemic life once again.
Governor Gregg Abbott’s office is doubling down on lifting COVID restrictions statewide this week, signing an executive order essentially banning future vaccine or mask-wearing requirements by public entities.
In a statement made Thursday, Abbott said the fight against COVID in Texas should rely on “personal responsibility rather than government mandates.”
The state policies have frustrated some doctors like Cummins, who said East Texas hospitals might be overrun by COVID cases if appropriate action is not taken.
“What’s happening right now is a direct result of choices made by people in this community,” Cummins said. “People chose not to be vaccinated. That choice has consequences. The pandemic is sparking up again; people are dying again.”
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