Pandemic forecasters in Texas say the state’s current surge of omicron infections and hospitalizations is likely to get much worse before it gets better, with hospitalizations expected to continue climbing for at least three weeks if social behaviors don’t change and slow the trend.
Across the nation, hospitalizations are already on the verge of breaking new pandemic records. In Texas on Thursday, according to state data, about 9,200 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 — far short of the record 14,218 hospitalizations from Jan. 11, 2021.
But with current numbers climbing exponentially each week, hospitalizations of Texans with COVID are likely to follow national trends and surpass previous levels in the state before they start to decline, said Anass Bouchnita, a researcher at the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, which uses data and research to project the path of the pandemic nationally.
The number of Texans testing positive for the virus every day is already at an all-time high, reaching a seven-day average of almost 44,000 confirmed cases on Friday. The seven-day average of new confirmed cases during the peak of the delta surge back in September was over 15,000.
That trend is likely to continue for at least another week, Bouchnita said.
“The situation in Texas is that it probably won’t reach the peak [for cases] until the second half of January,” he said.
Experts say the extremely high case count is why so many people are showing up in the hospital even as medical evidence suggests that the omicron variant — responsible for most new and active cases in Texas — is less severe than the previously dominant delta variant.
Bouchnita talked to The Texas Tribune on Friday, the same day the UT consortium released a report with the research team’s latest calculations about omicron’s projected path nationally. The report, which looked at eight scenarios in which omicron had varying degrees of severity, infectiousness and resistance to immunity, suggests the nation could see its new cases of this more contagious but less severe strain peak by mid-January before decreasing by half in early February.
The report called the current surge the largest COVID-19 wave in the United States to date.
In South Africa, where omicron overtook delta in late November, health officials are saying their current surge appears to be on the decline.
But in Texas, where political battles rage over curve-flattening protocols such as masking rules and vaccine mandates, daily new infections and hospitalizations are expected to continue climbing for several more weeks and may not start declining until February, after national numbers crest, said Bouchnita, a lead researcher on the group’s omicron modeling project.
In a worst-case scenario, hospitalizations across the nation could get up to three times the levels seen a year ago during the previous peak, he said. The team’s research did not determine whether Texas numbers would reach that high, just when they might reach their peak, Bouchnita said.
With weeks to go before the surge is expected to start abating, it’s difficult for providers to be optimistic that the records still won’t be broken.
“I see these numbers, and I think, ‘Oh my God, here we go again,” said Dr. Jennifer Liedtke, a physician at Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital and the local county health authority in Sweetwater, west of Abilene. “The last two surges were really tough.”
Until recent weeks, her hospital was seeing about five new positive results a day among the tests being performed on patients. Right before the new year, the hospital’s in-house lab had 65 new positives in one day, she said.
“We had a huge surge,” she said.
The ground battle in Texas against the most contagious strain of the virus yet is pushing an already exhausted health care system closer to its limits, with federal agencies stepping in to help with an enormous demand for COVID-19 testing and the state sending thousands of nurses to metro areas to help overwhelmed hospitals.
Intensive care units at more than 50 hospitals are at 100% capacity, according to state reports, and some regions of the state, including El Paso, are reporting no ICU beds available in the area.
Already, the state’s children’s hospitals have more patients with COVID-19 in their beds than at any other time in the pandemic — 351 statewide on Thursday, which is higher than the last peak during the delta variant surge of 345 in early September.
“It’s pretty crazy,” said Frisco pediatrician Dr. Seth Kaplan, immediate past president of the Texas Pediatrics Society. “Our volume is way up.”
After causing a deadly surge over the summer, delta has now fallen largely off the radar in Texas, accounting for fewer than 10% of new and active cases, according to health officials.
Since the first official reports of omicron surfaced in Texas in early December, positivity rates in Texas skyrocketed to 36% of all tests being administered — the previous record was 21% during last winter’s surge. In most of Texas’ 254 counties, daily new cases are climbing. Meanwhile, short-staffed physicians offices, clinics, and hospitals are under increasing pressure from an unprecedented number of cases among patients and staff — a number that was exacerbated even further by the winter season and holiday travel.
“It seems like another tidal wave,” said Castroville physician Dr. Mary Nguyen, whose small family practice outside San Antonio is getting inundated with patients who need treatment for symptoms or are seeking tests in addition to regular non-COVID treatment.
The UT projections suggest that, nationally, average daily death tolls may not reach previous peak levels if omicron is less severe than delta, as it appears to be.
But the threat to the health care system is real if record numbers of Texans continue to inundate hospitals that are already strained after two years of being battered by pandemic waves.
If Texans step up their social distancing and masking behaviors, the state could peak at lower numbers, and several weeks sooner, Bouchnita said.
And if that happens, Texans could start to see decreases in new cases and hospitalizations before the end of the month, he said.
Whether residents become more compliant with those strongly recommended protocols is harder to project, Bouchnita said.
“This is something that we just can’t describe with our mathematical models,” he said. “How people are going to behave.”
A Tyler artist and Tyler Junior College art professor who has gone through the journey of learning who he is, creating from self-expression and teaching his students to do the same is the first featured artist of 2022 at Gallery Main Street in downtown Tyler.
Derrick White is premiering his exhibit, “The Rivers of My Memory,” which he described as a connection of past and present that flows like a river, such as the color blue across each piece. The collection is made of four new works of art created by White, and an immersive piece, which was created eight years ago.
The four new pieces, two located on the left side of the gallery and two more on the right side, and the middle piece from 2014, show a flow of consistency and a visual vocabulary that fits into body of the work.
His work, mostly made with water-based acrylics and mixed media, which he describes as “organized chaos-ism,” is spontaneous. White said his creative process involves the act of painting into the dance of creating the work. When he begins the piece, he doesn’t have a preconceived notion of what the finished piece has to look like. He called the process “act and react.”
“I’ll start with a blank canvas, having no idea what the finished piece is going to be, but I’ll put some paint down, I’ll move it around, maybe with my hand or a brush, or maybe I’ll just get it really wet… and then I look at that reaction, of how the paint reacted with the canvas and the colors, and then I’ll look for things to draw out of that,” White said.
Chaos and accidents are involved, he added. In fact, all four new pieces started as live art before his students at TJC as a demonstration. He would begin the process, walk away from it to let layers dry, and return to the piece. He said this was different from the rest of his art, as he usually doesn’t walk away from his artwork to let it dry.
The experienced artist and art department chair has artwork across East Texas, including in the Tyler Museum of Art and the Longview and the Longview Museum of Fine Arts. He called the process of his artwork therapy and an easier way to get through life.
“Creativity in a human existence is important. One of the things I try to instill in my students is, ‘You’re the only you that exists on the planet. You’re not your brother or sister, you’re not your mom or dad, you’re not your kids, you’re not your cousin or boyfriend, you’re you. No one else is you but you.’ If you don’t express what it is to be you and share your worldview and your essence with the rest of us, there’s no way we can really know.
“It doesn’t have to be a pursuit of fine arts, you can do it with cooking, you can do it with the way you manicure your lawn. You can do it with the expression of the car you drive or the bumper sticker you put on it or the clothes you wear. I encourage people to have some creative activity, no matter what you major in or what their life pursuit is. It can be as simple as getting an aquarium and picking out the color of fish and the rocks,” White said.
Singing in the shower or writing a poem are ways of creating something, and White said that is the philosophy he believes in. In a pandemic world, White said painting, for him, is the way he processes thoughts and emotions.
“I can’t even imagine how much of a mess I would be if I didn’t have painting as a release valve,” he said.
In his early interest in art, White said in efforts to tie art into a paycheck to make a living, he went into advertising art. He called his interest in advertising art “miserable” and said it was a wake up call and ultimately, taught him perseverance. He switched to major in fine arts and learned what it truly was to express himself and leave the fear-based mentality behind.
White began his collegiate career at Cedar Valley Community College and eventually received his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Texas-Denton in 1992 and his master’s in 1996. He emphasized that community college got him through university and was essential in the foundation to get his education.
At community college, White was heavily inspired by professors who, to this day, he tries to emulate in his teaching career. It was there he got the encouragement and confidence to go into visual arts.
Randy Brodnax, Robert Jessup and Vince Falsetta are the main inspirations White met throughout his educational journey at CVCC and UNT.
“Encouraging students to find out who they are and discover their own voice and personality, that’s what I try to do with my students. A lot of people have an interest in art and want to pursue it, they just need to be given the permission to do so. A lot of what I do in my job as a professor at TJC is just allow students, give them permission and encouragement as a cheerleader, to say ‘you can explore this. You can express yourself however you choose to express yourself,’” White said.
For having had such strong connections at community college, White chose to teach at a community college, instead of a university level, to inspire his students to do the same.
White said he’s excited about his exhibit and said Tyler is growing opportunities to showcase art in the community.
“There’s an art movement here in Tyler that there hasn’t been in the last 20 years. It’s really built some momentum in the last few years. I’m sure, like everything, it took a hit due to the pandemic, but it’s coming back with some great momentum. There’s a lot of talented people here and I’m just proud and honored to be involved and be a part of it,” White said.
“Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is. Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.” (Amos 5:14-15)
As the year starts, so does enrollment for the only pre-K to eighth grade campus in all of East Texas that offers students with a dual language education of English and Spanish.
Until March 1, parents have the ability to enroll their children in Birdwell Dual Language Immersion School. Although it is a Tyler ISD campus, children are not required to be part of the Tyler ISD district to apply and be accepted.
Students who attend Birdwell take part in learning both languages as classes are taught in both Spanish and English.
“A lot of our kids coming into pre-K are monolingual English so they come in and their families don’t speak Spanish or anything. Those kids are super successful with our program learning English and Spanish at the same time even though their household doesn’t speak Spanish,” said Gretchen Nabi, interim principal of Birdwell Dual Language Immersion School.
Although enrollment is open for all students, Nabi recommends parents enroll their children at a young age.
“We really want them to start as early as possible. By third grade our students are fluent in both languages, and it’s challenging the older they get,” she said.
Even though it’s recommended students start young, parents interested in enrolling their child at an older age can still apply and the student will undergo testing before being accepted to see if they meet qualifications.
“We can look at any data they might have and do any assessments that might be necessary to see if they will be successful in our program at that point,” Nabi said.
In regards to students outside of the classroom, Sarah Hancock, Master Teacher at Birdwell Dual Language Immersion School, said students are expected to socially engage in certain languages throughout the week.
“We’re looking to build up their academic language in both Spanish and English as well as their social language,” Hancock said. “Monday, Wednesday and Friday students are asked to engage socially in Spanish and Tuesday and Thursday in English.”
As students navigate to higher education, Birdwell offers a Seal of Biliteracy certification to students, which is added to their High School diploma after meeting certain eligibility criteria academically.
Nabi considers the campus a cultural experience for those enrolled, she also mentioned that there’s teachers ranging from different backgrounds such as Spain, South America and Mexico.
“The environment at Birdwell is very much a family, we offer a lot of cultural things throughout the year and events students are engaged in,” she said.
Those interested in enrollment are recommended to apply online as soon as possible, since there’s a limited space. Thirty-minute tours are also available for parents and can be scheduled online.
Applications and more information on Tyler ISD’s Birdwell Dual Language Immersion School can be found at https://www.tylerisd.org/o/birdwelles.