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Health & Wellness

Here's Why Vaccinated People In North Texas Should Pay Attention To The COVID Surge

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UT Southwestern Medical Center
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Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have been spiking in North Texas. In early August, the weekly case count topped 6,600, compared to under 1,000 in July.

James Cutrell, an associate professor of medicine and infectious disease expert at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, said the delta variant, slowing vaccination rates and more social interaction over the summer are some of the factors behind the growing numbers. While vaccines are the best protection against the virus, Cutrell said there are things that even fully vaccinated people should keep in mind.

What is a breakthrough infection? What does that mean for people who are fully vaccinated?

Cutrell said breakthrough infections aren’t exactly surprising, but they can show up in a few different ways. He said most people who are fully vaccinated who do have a breakthrough infection could be asymptomatic, or present with very mild cold symptoms.

“The vaccines were always primarily developed to reduce severe disease and hospitalization,” Cutrell said. “Asymptomatic infection, while the vaccines have always been effective at reducing [it], they've never been able to fully eliminate [it].”

Less than 4% of people who have reported breakthrough cases have been hospitalized according to Dallas County Health and Human Services. Cutrell said these are usually people who have a previous medical condition or who are immunocompromised. That includes those who are undergoing cancer treatments, people with HIV, or people who are on drugs that suppress their immune systems. That’s one reason the CDC recently encouraged people in those groups to get a third vaccine booster shot.

Cutrell said the low rate of hospitalizations in breakthrough cases is proof enough that the vaccine is effective.

“What we're really seeing is that there's so much COVID out there in the community, that people who are fully vaccinated — if they have a high risk exposure — may get an asymptomatic infection or mild disease,” Cutrell said. “The fact that they don't then progress and get sicker and don't require hospitalization actually is proof that the vaccines are doing what they're expected to do.”

With coronavirus surges and a small number of breakthrough cases, how should people who are fully vaccinated navigate these next few weeks?

Cutrell said the most important thing for a person to consider is their own medical condition. If someone is fully vaccinated, but has an underlying medical condition that might put them at risk, “they definitely need to be taking all the precautions, because they may not be as effectively protected by the vaccine,” he said.

He said this also includes families where people are unvaccinated, like kids under 12. He credits the increase in coronavirus cases in kids to relaxed rules around masking, people being more mobile, and summer activities that didn’t happen as frequently in 2020. The percentage of kids who are hospitalized for COVID is very low, said Cutrell, “maybe around 1%,” but it does put a strain on pediatric hospitals like Cook Children’s in Fort Worth which have fewer ICU beds to begin with.

The best thing to do is to follow what public health officials have been urging for the past year-plus, said Cutrell: avoid large indoor gatherings, focus on outdoor activities, and wear a mask.

“People were very hopeful that we had moved past all of that,” Cutrell said. “So [now with] this latest wave and surge, it's almost more of the psychology or the mental framework. Everyone's tired of dealing with it. So how do we psych ourselves up to go another round?”

About five cases of a new coronavirus variant called lambda have popped up in Dallas County. What does that mean?

The lambda variant was first reported in Peru last December, said Cutrell, and it’s spread widely in South America. Some early laboratory studies indicate the variant does spread faster, but not as quickly as the delta variant, Cutrell said. He says he and his UT Southwestern colleagues are still in the fact-finding stage for the lambda variant.

“We're tracking it, and we're following it closely, [but] really over 90% of all of the viruses that we're sequencing in the North Texas area right now are the delta variant,” Cutrell said. “That's really our main concern, and what we're seeing primarily at this point.”

Coronavirus variants pop up all over the world, said Cutrell, but not all of them make it to the United States. Only the ones that spread most easily take off, like the alpha variant back in the winter, and the delta variant now. The delta variant is about twice as easy to transmit as the original strain of coronavirus last year.

So what could coronavirus in North Texas look like going into the fall?

Cutrell predicts cases will reach a peak in mid-September, with hospitalization rates peaking a few weeks later. After that, he’s hoping the surge will slow down and the region will see a decrease in cases. But he added that it also depends on whether public health measures change in the next few weeks.

“We're not passive bystanders in what happens,” Cutrell said. “We are really active participants. We all together have an opportunity to really write what the next chapter in the COVID pandemic looks like for the North Texas community.”

He said he encourages people to “redouble their efforts around masking and these other safety precautions,” including a bigger push for younger people to be vaccinated. But if those things don’t happen, more coronavirus surges are likely on the way for North Texas over the next six to nine months.

Got a tip? Email Elena Rivera at erivera@kera.org. You can follow Elena on Twitter @elenaiswriting.

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