As Christmas and family gatherings approached, thousands of people in Galveston County lined up or scheduled appointments to get tested for COVID, a trend local medical experts expect to continue through this week as the highly contagious omicron variant sends cases soaring here and globally.
But this time around in the pandemic, those who test positive for COVID can expect shorter quarantine, more flu-like symptoms but maybe less chance of hospitalization, experts said.
Although more people are testing positive, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Monday it would require only five days of isolation time for people who test positive instead of the previously recommended 10, easing the burden on businesses and governments dealing with staff shortages. People should continue to wear masks around others for five days after their release from quarantine, however, according to the CDC.
People who still have a fever after five days should stay home until their fever is gone, according to the recommendations.
In Galveston County, almost 8,900 people got tested last week, up from the more than 4,700 the previous week, according to numbers from the Galveston County Health District. The county has a 17.6 percent positivity rate, according to the district.
In the week leading up to Christmas, people waited in line three or four hours to get tested at the Free COVID Testing Service, 3201 FM 528, said Kim Kelley, owner of the federally funded mobile clinic.
“We’ve been so busy,” Kelley said. “The city has called the cops because we’ve been overwhelmed with traffic.”
Some people went for a pre-holiday test and some because they were sick, she said.
“We think it will continue past New Year’s,” Kelley said. “We really don’t know what to expect after that.”
The West Isle Urgent Care, 2027 61st St., which only takes walk-ins, has seen several-hour waits for tests as well, Dr. Edward Zompa, medical director, said.
The clinic, which closes at 10 p.m., lately has had to tell people who walk in at 7 p.m. the staff won’t have time to test them that day, Zompa said.
“More people are getting tested because there’s a whole bunch of positive cases,” Zompa said. “We’ve probably tested just in the last week well over 1,000 people.”
The holidays and the prospect of traveling and gathering with family brought a huge demand for COVID tests, health officials said.
But demand hasn’t led to delays at the University of Texas Medical Branch campuses, which have built up testing capacity during the most recent wave, said Dr. Janak Patel, the director of Infection Control and Healthcare Epidemiology at the medical branch.
The CDC last week recommended the shorter quarantine time for health care workers. Health care workers can get an antigen test to determine whether they’re negative, Patel said.
The more sensitive molecular test is preferred to diagnose COVID but it can return a positive result even after live virus is gone from a patient’s body; the less sensitive antigen test is used to determine return-to-work status, he said.
What people can expect is that if they catch the omicron variant, they’ll get sick, even if they’re vaccinated against COVID-19, Patel said.
Hospitalizations and deaths haven’t increased significantly, he said.
“But as far as getting infected and even getting symptoms, the vaccination and booster does not protect that well against the disease,” Patel said.
Vaccinations and boosters can prevent people from getting sick enough to be hospitalized, but Patel warned that people are still experiencing symptoms with omicron.
“Do not expect the illness to be mild,” Patel said. “You still can get prolonged high fevers. You still can get headaches and joint aches and fatigue that can last for several days. The outpatient illness is still pretty significant.”
People are experiencing symptoms sooner, within one to three days of exposure, he said.