COVID-19 cases are on the rise in the East Texas region and the high level of community transmission rates can be attributed to the subvariants’ contagiousness, a local health official said.
Case counts of COVID-19 are still rising in Smith County, but community transmission has lessened slightly since Monday, according to the most recent data from the Northeast Texas Public Health District.
Since Monday, 252 new cases have been diagnosed in Smith County, according to NET Health. There are 2,487 active cases in the county.
The county’s community transmission rate has decreased in the last few days, now in a moderate level of 34.24. On Monday, the rate was the highest in NET Health’s seven-county jurisdiction but it is now the second-highest with Wood County leading the way as the only county in substantial levels.
Public Health Emergency Preparedness Director for NET Health Russell Hopkins said the county saw similar case numbers in February and March but they peaked a little higher they are now.
There could be a lot more positive cases in Smith County than those being recorded by NET Health, Hopkins said, because it can’t access home testing numbers. Because at-home tests have become widely available, a rapid increase in at-home test use occurred nationwide between the delta and omicron predominant periods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hopkins said new subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 are contributing to the increase in cases and high transmission levels. He said these variants are particularly good at getting around immunities from vaccines and reinfecting people.
“You can pick it up any time you go out to eat, go to church, go to Lowes or Home Depot to pick up something, you’re gonna expose yourself,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins said another reason why Smith County may be seeing a higher number of cases recorded in NET Health statistics could be because it has more access to testing compared to other counties.
Hopkins said he expects the numbers to continue to rise and said these variants are very contagious.
“It’s not as severe as previously, but it’s very easy to catch and the nature of the spread makes it hard to determine when you are at risk because you have community spread instead of close contact spread,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins hopes this year will mirror last summer when numbers dropped after summer vacations and ahead of the school year. But with the variants’ ability to skirt vaccine immunity, he can’t really say if that will happen this year.
Although hospitalizations are up in Smith County, patients are not nearly as sick and most have underlying medical conditions, Hopkins said. Sixty-eight patients were in Tyler area hospitals as of Thursday.
Dr. Mark Anderson, Chief Medical Officer of Christus Trinity Mother Frances Health System, said despite the recent increase in COVID-19 infection rates across the region, their hospitals are seeing patients with relatively minor illness.
The number of patients being treated for COVID in CHRISTUS facilities remains significantly below the high points seen in previous spikes, he said.
“Our Christus hospitals continue to stand ready and able to take exceptional care of our community,” Anderson said. “We are in a constant readiness state, utilizing every available resource to ensure our hospitals have the staffing, equipment and supplies needed to meet all of the health care needs of the communities we serve.”
Anderson urged residents to protect themselves, their loved ones and their neighbors by getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, washing your hands often, practicing social distancing and staying home if you are sick.
To reduce the spread within the community, Hopkins said people need to apply the mitigation measures from the beginning of the pandemic.
“Other regions do mitigation much better than East Texas, it’s almost nonexistent here which is fine in times of minimal spread but we are in midst of high and moderate spread in all of our counties,” Hopkins said. “Really we should be thinking about if we are going to eat out, pick it up and take it somewhere else because we just have so much community spread going on.”