STATE HEALTH OFFICIALS ISSUE DIRE WARNINGS FOR DELTA COVID SURGE
(AUSTIN) — The rate of Texans needing hospitalization for COVID-19 treatment is increasing faster than at any other point in the pandemic, according to testimony offered to a Senate panel on Tuesday. Members of the Health and Human Services Committee were told that this surge is driven by the delta variant, a more contagious form of the virus that has plagued the globe since early 2020. Though current vaccines are still highly effective against infection, and even better against severe disease and death, the variant is rapidly spreading though unvaccinated populations and putting extreme stress on the state's beleaguered health system, according to state health commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt. "It is clear that the delta variant is spreading very fast in our communities, it's quite dangerous, and it is now producing the need for hospitalization in relatively younger age groups," he said.
Hellerstedt expressed deep concern over the rate at which cases and hospitalizations are increasing in Texas. "In previous surges we had gone up to having 14,800 people in the hospital at a time and up to 14,000 staff that we were deploying around the state. We barely squeaked through," he told members. "It's faster now than it ever has been." Hellerstedt was emphatic that widespread vaccination is the only way the state will truly end the COVID pandemic. "There's no doubt in my mind that vaccination is the way to get back to the point where we want to be," he said. For those who cannot get vaccinated, like those Texans under the age of 12, the same tried mitigation strategies of masking, social distancing and hygiene can help blunt the impact, he said.
According to health officials who oversee hospital districts in the state's two largest counties, the vast majority of COVID hospitalizations - and all of the deaths - are among individuals who have not been fully vaccinated against the virus. Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, the CEO for the Harris County hospital district, told members that of the 1,300 COVID admissions at his Houston-area hospitals since January, only 1.7 percent were fully vaccinated and no one who was fully vaccinated died. It's the same in north Texas, said Dr. Joseph Chang, chief medical officer for Parkland Health and Hospital Systems, the hospital district for Dallas County. His facilities have seen around 1,100 COVID admissions over the last six months. Only 27 of those individuals were fully vaccinated, and of those, only seven needed oxygen therapy and none died.
A lack of skilled healthcare workers is only making the problem worse, hospital officials told senators. Dr. Chang said that competition between hospitals over staff have driven pay scales for nurses and technicians sky high. "My chief nursing officer is finding it basically impossible to continue to recruit and staff," he said. It's not any better in Houston, where Dr. Porsa said he's had to shut down ICU capacity because he didn't have enough staff. It's taking a toll on morale as well. "I am faced with a workforce who is tired, overworked, and constantly under siege," he said.
This week, Governor Greg Abbott asked hospitals to postpone elective procedures and directed state health agencies to begin recruiting nurses and other skilled healthcare workers from out of state to address the staffing shortages at Texas hospitals. He also called on the fifty-five percent of Texans who are still unvaccinated to get the shot. "Texans can help bolster our efforts by getting vaccinated against COVID-19," he said in a Monday statement. "The COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective, and it is our best defense against this virus."