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North Texas COVID-19 cases go up, bringing more warnings and pleas for people to get vaccinated

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COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are on the rise, in part because two new variants are more transmissible.

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and emergency room visits in DFW have accelerated in recent weeks. It’s led Dallas County to raise its infection “risk level” and brought renewed calls from officials and health leaders for people to get vaccinated and take other precautions.

Dr. Joseph Chang, chief medical officer at Parkland Health, said the hospital on Tuesday had about 36 patients with active COVID infections. Five others were recuperating and no longer infectious.

That’s not as many Parkland hospitalizations as past waves, but way ahead of recent months. Chang said two months ago, his hospital had only two or three COVID patients.

“At the height of Delta and the height of Omicron, we had upwards of 200, sometimes even 300 COVID patients in the house at any given time,” said Chang. “Forty right now is pretty low relative to that.”

He said if the numbers go up to 100 or so, Parkland Hospital will again convert entire floors to treat COVID patients.

A forecasting model from UT-Southwestern Medical Center last week said hospital admissions “are at relatively low levels but are climbing quickly,” noting a steeper increase in hospitalizations for people over 65 years old.

Warnings from health officials have taken on a concerned — if familiar — tenor over the past week.

The Centers for Disease Control classified Dallas, Tarrant, and Collin Counties as having a “high” community level of infection. Denton County’s community level is “medium.”

Dallas County also sets its own risk level, which officials moved to “Extreme Caution” over the weekend.

“Please consider masking in public indoor settings, use virtual options when available for professional or personal meetings, minimize attendance at large gatherings,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins in a tweet on Tuesday. "Test 3-5 days after a known exposure or when you have symptoms and get those booster doses!”

There are several reasons for the increase in cases and hospitalizations.

One is that the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of omicron are very transmissible, according to Dr. James Cutrell at UT-Southwestern.

“Probably about 20% to 30% faster than the original Omicron variant or some of the earlier subvariants we saw back in the early spring,” he told KERA. “Some interesting data suggests ... BA.5, in particular, is more efficient at entering into cells and leads to higher spikes of the viral load we're seeing in the upper airways.”

And that, Cutrell said, may partially explain the rapid spread of BA.5.

There is also a stubbornly low uptake of COVID-19 boosters, something Dallas County officials have noted for months.

“Only 73% of Dallas County residents have received one vaccine and only 24% of those eligible have been boosted,” said a recent letter to Jenkins from the county’s public health committee.

Numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Services say that for Dallas, Tarrant, Collin, and Denton Counties, less than half of people who are fully vaccinated have also received a booster shot.

Chang said he thinks the timing of when the boosters came out meant people were less likely to get them.

“The timing of when these boosters … were approved also coincided with the time when folks’ attention to COVID and worry about COVID actually started going down,” he said. “We talk about this concept of COVID fatigue, and it’s real.”

The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of 5 should get one booster and those over 50 years old should get two, along with immunocompromised people. Getting vaccinated may not stop you from catching COVID-19, but experts say it will likely reduce the severity of the sickness.

“We have so many people that are losing protection due to time elapsed from their initial vaccine doses, but are currently eligible for another dose,” Jenkins tweeted.

And he provided the website for finding a shot: vaccines.gov.

Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at bjaspers@kera.org. You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.