Health officials in McLennan County on Friday reported 11 COVID-19 cases involving the highly contagious delta variant and sounded the alarm that the county is in danger of a new surge in cases because of weak rates of vaccination.
A weekly report from the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District shows key indicators of the pandemic locally have increased since the previous week. Those include a 25% increase in new cases, a 38% increase in total active cases and an 8.3% increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations. In addition, two new fatalities were reported this week, bringing the McLennan County death toll to 467.
The July bump in COVID-19 cases is nowhere near its winter peak, but it is “highly probable” that it is the result of the more transmissible delta variant, health district senior epidemiologist Vaidehi Shah said.
The 11 cases, the first reported in this county, date back to specimens collected in June, mostly from two families, Shah said. COVID-19 tests do not routinely specify variants but state health labs monitor test samples.
Shah said given how quickly the delta strain spreads and the statewide estimates that it accounts for one in four new cases, the variant is likely widespread in this county.
Dr. Ben Wilson, associate chief medical officer at Waco Family Medicine, who tracks pandemic trends, agrees. The delta variant is 50% more transmissible than a variant first identified in the United Kingdom, which itself is considered highly transmissible, Wilson said.
“I don’t know how much they’re testing for it, but I’d be absolutely shocked if (the delta strain) wasn’t already prolific in our county,” he said. “I would say we are especially vulnerable here in McLennan County, because our vaccination rates lag the state’s, which in turn lag the rest of the country.”
The share of the 12-and-older population in McLennan County that has had at least one dose of the vaccine is 46.6%, compared with 59.2% statewide and 65.2% nationwide. The percentage that is fully vaccinated is 40.6% in McLennan County, 51.2% in Texas and 56.5% in the U.S.
The health district reported 149 new cases this week, up from 119 last week and 71 week the week before. Shah said that upward curve is likely to continue.
“Considering our vaccination rate — 40% is a pretty low number — if our vaccination rates don’t increase and given no other mitigation measures in the state, we may be looking at an increase in cases in the next few weeks. … Knowing we have a weapon we can use against it, now more than ever, people should get vaccinated.”
The pace of the vaccination effort in McLennan County has stagnated in recent weeks. The health district reported 100,375 McLennan County residents have had at least one shot, an increase of 1,269 people from a week ago. By contrast, some 11,000 people got their first vaccine in the month of June.
Having a majority of the population unvaccinated when a fast-moving strain is afoot makes McLennan County vulnerable to a new surge, officials from the health district and Waco Family Medicine said. The undervaccinated are another concern.
The health district reported 13,149 people in the county have had one dose of the vaccine but are not fully vaccinated, about the same number as the week prior. Wilson said Waco Family Medicine, the dominant provider of primary care for low-income residents in McLennan County, has seen many no-shows for the second dose, though not as many as for the first-dose appointments.
“We know there is a deficit of people receiving a second dose,” Wilson said. “We know this is a problem, and it will probably worsen or improve in direct proportion to what the COVID curve is doing. As COVID counts increase, people will become more aware of the need to be vaccinated.”
Wilson said Pfizer estimates its vaccine is 88% effective against the new delta variant for people who are fully vaccinated but only 33% effective for those who have had one dose.
“It appears from the data we have that the second dose is more important in protecting against the delta variant than it was with prior variants,” he said.
Wilson said it is not just the unvaccinated who are at risk if the delta strain causes a new surge in cases. Even the fully vaccinated have some risk of catching the virus, though their cases are likely to be milder. And some patients have medical conditions that prevent them from getting the full benefit of the vaccine.
“About 3 to 4% of the population is immunocompromised and do not respond to the vaccine as well as we would like,” he said. “One of the major strategies is to effectively create an immunized cocoon around them.”
The free vaccine is widely available at pharmacies, doctor’s offices and the health district office at 225 W. Waco Drive, and the health district is continuing its outreach efforts at worksites, churches, schools and housing complexes. The district also has a program that dispatches about 20 volunteers to be “vaccine ambassadors” in their communities and churches.
But Wilson said lack of access no longer seems to be the primary hindrance to improving the vaccination rate.
“The current struggle is almost entirely against vaccine misinformation,” he said.
In other highlights from the weekly report:
The county this week had 158 active cases, up 38% from last week’s 114.
The seven-day average number of COVID-19 hospitalizations was 18.57, up 8.34% from the prior week. At the peak of the pandemic on Jan. 16, the seven-day average was 164.86.
An average of 125 tests a day were conducted in the past week, with a positivity rate of 8%.