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North Texas COVID-19 cases increase headed into the new year

Virus Outbreak Travel Testing
Seth Wenig
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AP
"Even though [COVID-19] pales in comparison to last year, we don't know where this is going to trend," said Juan Rodriguez, chief epidemiologist for Denton County Public Health. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

COVID-19 cases were already rising ahead of the holidays, and the trend is continuing into 2023.

COVID-19 cases in Texas have been climbing steadily for the past few months, averaging 2,000-4,000 new cases a day in December, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

While that’s significantly lower than the omicron surge in early 2022, which averaged 35,000-50,000 cases a day in the state, public health officials are still concerned about the increasing cases.

Juan Rodriguez, chief epidemiologist and assistant director for Denton County Public Health, said the last week of December showed the county had about 1,000 new cases, “the highest it’s been in quite some time.”

“But it pales in comparison to just 12 months ago, the winter before that, where we had almost 15,000 cases a week,” he said. “It is trending up, and we do see a new subvariant in the U.S. that seems to be quite contagious, and we’re monitoring to see where this goes.”

That subvariant of omicron, named XBB 1.5, makes up about a fourth of all cases in the U.S. right now, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The World Health Organization reports XBB might have a “higher reinfection risk” than other variants.

“It is growing quickly,” Rodriguez said. “It does seem to be very transmissible, so that can be a bad mixture for higher cases.”

Other parts of North Texas, like Dallas and Tarrant counties, saw similar increases in December.

Chief Epidemiologist Russ Jones from Tarrant County Public Health said the county’s COVID-19 level was set to “high” after a 40% increase in hospitalizations during the week of Dec. 26th. He reported admissions increased from 16 per 100,000 people to over 24 per 100,000 peope.

Virus Outbreak-Updating Vaccines
Mary Altaffer/AP
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AP
A Northwell Health registered nurse fills a syringe with a COVID-19 vaccine at a pop up vaccination site the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center, April 8, 2021, in the Staten Island borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, file)

Dallas County Health and Human Services director Philip Huang said cases in the county started to increase after Thanksgiving, with more than 2,000 positive cases for the last week of December.

“We’re definitely waiting to still see the full impact from New Year’s gatherings,” Huang said.

Still, Huang said the community has come a long way since last year’s surge.

“It is fortunate we have these new tools available, like the vaccines, we just need to take advantage of those,” he said.

Rodriguez and Huang both said targeted Omicron boosters, and more access to antiviral treatments, means there are more options for people who do contract the virus. Rodriguez still encourages people to test and stay home if they have COVID-19-like symptoms.

“It’s 2023, and this started in 2019,” he said. “I understand people have some apathy towards it, and are ready to be over it, but it’s not over with us.”

Katherine Hobbs contributed to this report.

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

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Elena Rivera is the health reporter at KERA. Before moving to Dallas, Elena covered health in Southern Colorado for KRCC and Colorado Public Radio. Her stories covered pandemic mental health support, rural community health access issues and vaccine equity across the region.