Concern about the omicron coronavirus variant and holiday season gatherings is driving more people to receive their first doses or booster shots of COVID vaccines in Galveston County, according to the Galveston County Health District.
Vaccination rates increased as the health district identified the first case of the omicron variant in Galveston County.
Vaccination rates are increasing in steps, rather than leaps, but health officials say they hope the uptick will keep caseloads and demand for hospital care low.
The health district administered 727 vaccinations in the week from Nov. 29 to Dec. 5, up from 480 vaccinations administered between Nov. 8 and Nov. 14, said Ashley Tompkins, district spokeswoman.
“We are seeing an increase in the number of people coming in both for first and second doses and for booster doses,” Tompkins said.
The health district also identified the county’s first COVID case of the omicron variant Thursday, Tompkins said. The case was found in a fully vaccinated man who had no recent history of travel, she said. Harris County this week also announced its first case of the omicron variant.
That uptick is driven in large part by concern about the omicron variant, which appears to be more contagious, although less virulent — less likely to make people seriously ill — than the dominant delta strain, said Dr. Philip Keiser, local health authority.
“Any time there’s a perceived threat or surge, we see vaccinations go up,” Keiser said. “Our vaccine clinic had gone down to just a trickle and one day we had 200 people come to get their boosters.”
More people are going in for boosters than for first and second doses, but all three shots are in demand, he said.
The time of year also plays a role in the uptick, Keiser said. Last winter, cases were rising in mid-November and spiked in December and January, after people had gathered for Thanksgiving and then Christmas.
Those memories are bringing in residents for a pre-holiday booster shot or, in some cases, to get vaccinated for the first time, Keiser said.
“Everybody’s been through this before,” Keiser said. “They remember what happened last year with Christmas.”
Galveston County isn’t getting massive waves of people getting vaccinated.
“We’re seeing incremental change,” Keiser said. “We’re seeing some people slowly changing their mind.”
About 60.5 percent of Galveston County residents at least 5 years old are fully vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Almost 67 percent have had at least one dose. Almost 85.6 percent of adults at least 65 years old are fully vaccinated, according to the department.
More than 100,000 Galveston County residents are eligible for booster shots, Tompkins said.
“Booster doses are recommended for everyone ages 18 and older,” Tompkins said. “The emergence of the omicron variant further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters and other prevention efforts like masking and social distancing when in public.”
Although it’s still too early to tell how the omicron variant could affect hospitalizations, the University of Texas Medical Branch is well prepared to handle a major surge, he said.
Much still is unknown about the omicron variant, but some researchers have an optimistic outlook about this strain, he said.
“If it is highly infectious, but not particularly virulent, this might be the end of it,” Keiser said. “That’s a very, very optimistic view, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.”
That less virulent variant would be more manageable, he said.
“If it becomes the dominant variant, it means the virus will fade in terms of causing issues,” Keiser said. “We all get our yearly flu shot and yearly COVID shot.”
It’s still too early to tell exactly how omicron will affect COVID rates, he said.
The health district is holding a drive-through vaccination clinic Saturday for people ages 18 and older at 9850 Emmett F. Lowry Expressway in Texas City. Children 5 to 17 years old can get their vaccinations inside. Appointments are required for both.