SAN ANTONIO – The heightened COVID-19 risk level in Bexar County could spike this fall as children head back to school mixed with the possibility of new variants, according to a demographics expert at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
The virus risk level for Bexar County increased — three times — in the past month as local hospitals have felt the crunch of rising infections and public officials attempt to stomp the spread of the delta variant, a more transmissible and dangerous strain of COVID-19.
Dr. Rogelio Saenz, a demography professor at UTSA’s College for Health, Community and Policy, said with a large population still unvaccinated, the coronavirus could continue to mutate and cause more infections.
Saenz recently told KSAT that a spike “is likely to be the case” because public health specialists are learning more about the threat of the delta variant, which was first detected in the U.S. in March.
“... we had those variants that we had a few months ago that were cropping up that seemed to be even more dangerous than the actual coronavirus ... these particular variants are much, much more dangerous, they’re much more contagious,” he said.
In San Antonio, local officials released a new batch of alarming data on Tuesday: the seven-day average of new cases is now at 1,146, an increase of 724 from last week. Officials also reported 920 hospitalizations, up from 695 reported on Thursday.
“And I think, sadly, one of the places that we see it, we will see it even more so in a few weeks as students go back to school,” Saenz said.
According to a COVID-19 Data Tracker from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bexar County has become a virus hot spot in recent weeks because of a “high” transmission level.
The CDC states Bexar County recorded a rate of 293 new cases per 100,000 people in the last week, a 131.25% increase over the previous week.
At the beginning of July, the COVID-19 risk level was sitting in the green zone of “low.” Fast-forward to Tuesday, and the level increased to “severe.”
City spokeswoman Cleo Garcia said the level was at “mild” for three weeks in July before increasing to “moderate.”
Each level is based on hospital trends, the average case rate, the positivity rate and hospital stress.
The rise in infections led the CDC to recommend people, even those fully vaccinated, to wear face coverings in parts of the U.S. with at least 50 new cases per 100,000 people in the last week. San Antonio meets that threshold.
The masking guidance will remain until spread is minimized, but public health experts and government officials said the key is to keep vaccinating.
But with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott doubling down on prohibiting schools, local governments and other publicly funded entities from requiring masks and vaccines, Saenz says the road back to normalcy could be blurry.
If a “significant portion of the population” remains unvaccinated, he said, the virus will “continue to be active, to spread, to mutate, to the alpha variant and now to the delta variant.”
“As long as we have people that are not vaccinating, that puts us further and further and further into the distant future, in terms of when we can resume back to so-called normal life,” he said.
What this means for back-to-school season
Pandemic-era protocols for schools and government buildings, such as mask mandates and capacity limits, are no longer required in Texas under Abbott’s new order issued last week.
In a statement, the Republican governor said the new order “emphasizes that the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates.”
“Texans have mastered the safe practices that help to prevent and avoid the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “They have the individual right and responsibility to decide for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, and engage in leisure activities.”
Abbott also noted that while he believes the vaccine is the most effective weapon against the virus, the state of Texas will keep them voluntary.
Read Abbott’s full new executive order at the end of this article.
The new order was issued a day after San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said they would send a letter to the governor’s office, seeking approval of a mask mandate in schools.
The Texas State Teachers Association also called on Abbott to allow districts to require masks as children head back to the classroom.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden sharply criticized Abbott and resistant Republican governors who have blocked the reimposition of mask mandates.
“If you’re not going to help, at least get out of the way of people trying to do the right thing,” Biden said.
Saenz said this is where leaders “run into a brick wall.”
“And I think that that’s a difficult one because we know that community leaders, the mayor, county judges, many parents that are calling for such mandates and so forth, but there are a lot of politics ... and there’s this whole thing with respecting the liberty and the rights of people who haven’t been vaccinated or don’t want to work,” Saenz said.
“But fortunately, I think that slowly, you’re beginning to see elected officials and leaders that are saying we need to protect the rights, also, of individuals who have been vaccinated, individuals who are wearing masks to protect themselves and their families, and our children who are so vulnerable.”
The CDC recommends indoor masking for all students, teachers, staff and campus visitors regardless of their vaccination status. Children who are at least 12 years old are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.
Saenz said that while children tend to have a lower risk of serious side effects from COVID-19, the threat of the delta variant could threaten children with pre-existing conditions.
Dr. Tess Barton, associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at UT Health SA, recently told KSAT that many of her young patients hospitalized with the delta variant were from unvaccinated families.
Barton advises families to practice social distancing, wear masks, get vaccinated if possible, and stay home if they’re feeling sick.
Watch: What you need to know about the delta variant
Read: Abbott’s full new executive order.