As spring classes begin and students return from break, eyes are on the number of active COVID-19 cases in Brazos County.
According to an update from the Brazos County Health District on Tuesday, Jan. 19, the county’s ICU bed capacity currently sits at 131 percent, with 1,806 active cases among the community. There are 101 newly reported positive cases, which marks the 20th consecutive day of 100 or more cases being confirmed in the county.
Dr. Shawn Gibbs, the dean for the Texas A&M School of Public Health, said an increase in cases is likely with students and faculty returning from various areas for winter break.
“We are seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases across the country,” Gibbs said. “National and local experts had predicted that the November to December holiday seasons would result in many more cases, and the rise in local and national cases are a result of behaviors during those holidays. We were very aware that this was likely and is one of the reasons why we have implemented the Return to Spring testing for both employees and on-campus students.”
The return to campus testing plan requires all student workers, staff, faculty and students living on campus to get a COVID-19 test by Jan. 22. All other students are strongly advised to test by this date as well.
Vaccine availability for the general public is another question on the minds of students returning to A&M this spring, as news of vaccine developments by various companies and universities continues circulating.
One local hospital, CHI St. Joseph Health, currently receives weekly allocations of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for distribution, but according to information provided by the hospital, the supply is limited.
“We have also been identified as a vaccine hub for our community by the state and are now working with Brazos County to develop a community vaccine clinic at the Brazos Center,” an email from CHI St. Joseph said. “Our nurses, physicians and other caregivers have trained pandemic response throughout their careers, and we continue to adapt our policies and procedures to best address the current COVID-19 pandemic.”
The U.K.-originating coronavirus variant, B.1.1.7, has also hit Texas, with Harris County reporting the first case on Jan. 7. Experts are predicting this highly transmissible strain will cause another spike, making up the largest portion of cases in the U.S. by this spring.
Brazos County Health District support services manager Sara Mendez said the current COVID-19 tests don’t uncover the specific strain of coronavirus infecting an individual, meaning there may be more cases of this variant than are currently reported.
“There is more testing that has to be done, so if you go get a COVID-19 test, it doesn’t necessarily tell us what kind it is; If someone is hospitalized, then the provider could determine what variant it is,” Mendez said. “Early research is showing that [B.1.1.7] is more easily transmissible than the current strain that we have, but the same prevention measures of social distancing and wearing masks prevent the transmission of that, even the variant of the virus.”
With the new strain, limited vaccine availability and a recent return from travel, an email from CHI St. Joseph said the hospital is prepared for a spike in cases, despite its current over-capacity ICU.
“Our health system has a surge plan for handling the additional capacity,” CHI St. Joseph said. “As we continue into flu season and acknowledge the further potential increase in COVID-19 cases, our care sites are actively planning to care for a surge of patients. While we have these resources, it is important to do everything we can to slow and reduce the spread of COVID-19.”
To more efficiently track the spread of the coronavirus, A&M redesigned the COVID-19 Dashboard, keeping all historical information in separate graphics while prioritizing new data and creating a table for voluntary asymptomatic testing statistics.
“The month of January will be a difficult one for our country and the state of Texas,” Gibbs said. “The many protocols, seen and unseen, that [A&M] has put in place to better protect our student and employee populations from the spread of the virus have been effective, but we still need everyone to be diligent.”