We were warned about this.
For months, the nation’s public health experts told us exactly what would happen if enough of us didn’t roll up our sleeves and step up for our Fauci ouchies. And now here we are.The highly contagious delta variant has led to a new surge in San Antonio-area COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Alarmingly, that wave comes just before school restarts and children too young to be vaccinated head back to the classroom.
Compounding the problem, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has banned local authorities from requiring masks in schools, imposing business limits or requiring public employees to get vaccinated. As the Republican governor looks to 2022 reelection and a possible 2024 presidential run, he has repeatedly appealed to his anti-vaccine base by saying shots are matter of personal choice.
A Tuesday court victory gave San Antonio and Bexar County officials a temporary reprieve from Abbott's orders, but it's unclear how that legal battle will play out over the longer term. With that in mind, San Antonians may remain largely on their own to mitigate this dangerous new chapter in the pandemic.
To be sure, many are stepping up. It’s encouraging that for the second straight week, new vaccinations are increasing in Bexar County.
As of Friday, more than 1.3 million Bexar residents age 12 and over have now received at least one dose of vaccine. Local pop-up clinics administered roughly 6,700 jabs in July, up 76% from the 3,800 they gave in June.
It’s also encouraging that some local businesses are taking creative steps to get their staffs inoculated. Jody Bailey Newman, owner of Southtown’s The Friendly Spot, for example, offered individual incentives to her employees to get their shots and promised a raffle once they hit a 100% vaccination rate.
Her staff is now fully vaccinated, and her bar has staged two “beer and a shot” pop-up clinics, offering residents a free beer and a tequila shot in exchange for jab from a local medical provider.
“I wonder if the average person who’s doubting the vaccine and debating the science is really thinking about the effect that their choice has on their neighbors and friends,” Bailey Newman said.
But even with those efforts, just 63.9% of Bexar County’s total population is fully vaccinated.
While there’s no scientific consensus about achieving herd immunity, public health experts point out that inoculations are key to making the coronavirus a manageable threat. Vaccinations are no guarantee a person won’t contract COVID-19, but they’re far less likely to end up hospitalized.
It’s now time for those who haven’t yet received the vaccine to recognize that doing so is about more than the personal responsibility the governor has repeatedly trumpeted. It’s about responsibility to the larger community.
Local hospitals are already becoming stressed by the climbing cases, and medical workers say they are being pushed to the brink of burnout.
With the delta variant now accounting for four of five local cases, new data models from University of Texas at San Antonio mathematician Juan B. Gutiérrez suggest San Antonio could experience 50,000 to 200,000 new infections during the current wave. Those infections area likely to bring 700 to 3,000 additional deaths, mostly among the unvaccinated.
“Clearly, 200,000 is the maximum, but we could reach that if there’s no change in behavior,” said Gutiérrez, who has tracked the virus since it arrived on U.S. shores. “Because this strain is so transmissible, we run the risk of overwhelming out hospital systems much more quickly.”
Data also suggests that children are more likely to face serious health outcomes from the delta variant than they did during the earlier stages of the pandemic. At a press briefing last week, city and county officials revealed that an infant was under hospital care after contracting the coronavirus — a local first — and that a four-year-old was being treated on a ventilator.
“This is different. This delta variant is different,” Dr. Charles Hankins, senior vice president of pediatrics at CHRISTUS Health, warned. “If parents and those 12 and up can get vaccinated, we can protect those who aren’t old enough to get vaccinated.”
Gutiérrez is troubled by the lack of mask mandates in public schools, calling them the “space of susceptibility” that could lead to numbers closer to his worst-case projections.
Shorten this wave
While Abbott has told local officials he won’t allow them to impose new restrictions on businesses, it’s almost inevitable that public-facing enterprises and cultural institutions will be further damaged if this wave continues to worsen.
Event cancellations are already beginning to rack up. Pop-culture convention Celebrity Fan Fest scrapped its latest installment after three of its headliners withdrew amid fears of the rising wave, and the River Rodeo music fest pushed back to 2022, saying it couldn’t guarantee the safety of attendees.
For small businesses and arts institutions already on the ropes after more than 16 months of lockdowns and uncertainty, riding out another severe surge could be devastating. The same goes for the workers who rely on them for their paychecks.
It’s unclear how willing Congress will be to write another round of relief checks to soften the blow for both.
“Maybe you don’t think that you need that shot, but your community needs you to get it,” the Friendly Spot’s Bailey Newman said, summing up the urgency.
To her point, it’s now time for everyone in the San Antonio community — vaccinated and unvaccinated — to do our part to shorten this wave and ensure the numbers don’t reach the grim upper end of UTSA professor Gutiérrez’s projections.
Those still legitimately concerned about the health effects of getting their shots should step away from Twitter and TV, meet with their doctors and access information based on science, not memes and conjecture.
Those who refuse the vaccine because they’re eager to make a political point, should reflect on the real-world implications of that choice. Surely, there are far more productive and less selfish ways to air their grievances.
Those of us who are already vaccinated aren’t off the hook. We should speak to friends and loved ones who haven’t yet taken the step. Not to scold and ridicule, tempting as that may be, but to express concern for their safety and those around them.
Finally, all of us should also put on our masks — even though those weeks without them in public places were a big relief — because it’s the least we can do to protect the city we call home.
To find a vaccination clinic or pop-up location, visit covid19.sanantonio.gov/What-YOU-Can-Do/Vaccination.
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