In sheer numbers, COVID-19 has never been worse in Galveston County.
On Friday, the number of identified active cases topped 9,000 for the first time ever, according to the county health district.
But fortunately, the human and social consequences of COVID aren’t measured in sheer numbers alone, so things aren’t as bad as they have been or could be, health officials said.
Patients at the University of Texas Medical Branch aren’t as ill as they had been during past spikes, Galveston County Local Health Authority Dr. Philip Keiser said.
“The people I was seeing were not in as bad a respiratory state,” Keiser, who also is a physician at the medical branch, said. “Surprisingly, they were looking much more comfortable than they did last go-around.”
Some events are being canceled. Parents were warned to be ready to drive their children to school because of infections among bus drivers. Jury trials have been stopped at the county courthouse for at least two weeks.
For the first time since early in the pandemic, the health district opened a drive-through testing site to deal with the large demand.
As omicron infects greater numbers of people, consensus is growing that the variant is more infectious, even for vaccinated people, but causes milder symptoms.
In Galveston, as across the country, medical officials say people going into hospitals with COVID-19 have different and less severe symptoms than with previous strains.
Dr. Shawn Nishi, a professor and program director of the medical branch’s pulmonary critical care unit, said all COVID-positive people in the hospital aren’t there because of COVID.
On Thursday, there were about 40 COVID-positive patients at the medical branch’s Galveston hospitals, Nishi said. But only about half of the patients had traditional COVID symptoms such as shortness of breath, Nishi said.
The other half were incidental diagnosis in people hospitalized for things other than COVID, Nishi said.
They were found to be infected because the medical branch tests every patient who enters the hospital, Nishi said.
That’s a big difference from the delta surge last summer, she said.
“We did not notice asymptomatic cases,” during delta, Nishi said. “It wasn’t to this level at all. Omicron in general seems milder.”
Most recent COVID patients are complaining of sore throats, body aches and “feeling kind of cruddy,” along with diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. The loss of the sense of smell, one of the signature signs of earlier infection, is less common now, she said.
Fewer people are using intensive care beds, and public reports show that while hospitalizations are near where they were in September, at the downturn of the delta surge, the number of people requiring ventilators to breathe in this region is about equal to November, when cases were at one of the lowest points.
That’s not to say things are good, Nishi said.
While hospitalizations from COVID-19 are not as high as during previous surges, more hospital workers are getting sick from the highly contagious strain, Nishi said.
“Our division had not really gotten sick until this variant hit,” Nishi said. “It’s just super contagious. We’ve been so careful. But despite our best efforts, we’ve had people in our division going down.”
That means more work for doctors, nurses and others who’ve spent the past 22 months treating people for COVID-19 and trying to catch up on treating people ill with other things when COVID subsided — and then facing a new wave.
“We’ve been in a higher state of businesses this whole time,” Nishi said. “It’s not like we ever went down to pre-COVID hospitalization levels.”
There are few, if any, signs the latest surge is peaking. Cases are expected to rise in days to come, Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday.
“I don’t believe we’ve seen the peak yet here in the United States,” Walensky said during an appearance on the “Today Show.”
In South Africa, where some of the earliest reports of omicron infection appeared, new daily cases rose for about four weeks before dropping dramatically. In Galveston County, the sharp spike in cases began about the middle of December.
“We’re all hoping things follow the pattern they did in South Africa,” Keiser said. “I can’t say we’re there yet. The numbers are still going straight up.”