COVID-19 hospitalizations in Waco hit a new high Tuesday as local hospitals awaited their first doses of the newly approved COVID-19 vaccine.
Down the road in Temple, Baylor Scott & White Medical Center released video and photos of employees receiving the first doses of the vaccine to make it there.
Waco hospitals were treating 116 COVID-19 patients Tuesday, including 81 McLennan County residents and 19 on ventilators, according to the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District. That is the most COVID-19 patients hospitalized at one time so far in Waco. The health district also announced three more residents of the county have died because of the disease, bringing the total to 239.
“We’re definitely at a stage of high hospitalizations now, which is affecting our hospital capacity, and we’re seeing an increase in the fatalities,” health district Senior Epidemiologist Dr. Vaidehi Shah said Tuesday night during presentation to the Waco City Council.
The number of McLennan County deaths attributed to the coronavirus has ranged between about 30 and 45 per month since a spike in cases in July.
“If we continue with the rate we’re at right now, we may reach over 45 and definitely 50 by the end of December,” Shah said.
The health district also announced 139 new cases of COVID-19 in residents of the county Tuesday, bringing the active case count to 831 and the cumulative case count to 16,570.
Health district officials are monitoring mortuary capacity in the county, and a local mortuary is using a refrigerated truck as a mobile morgue, district preparedness coordinator Stephanie Alvey said during the city council presentation.
“It may surprise you to learn that we’ve been planning for fatality management for many years,” Alvey said. “We established a work group back in 2014 to develop a fatality management plan.”
The health district also has longstanding plans, developed to respond to natural disasters, for creating alternate sites where people can be treated if hospitals become too full. Starting earlier this year, those plans have been adapted for COVID-19 and standing at the ready, she said.
“One of the main things we’ve learned over the course of this pandemic is that there really is no single trigger that would cause us to activate an alternate care site,” Alvey said. “There are so many factors that impact capacity … from staffing to equipment to actual bed space, as well as staff fatigue and illness.”
State health officials have said Waco’s hospitals, Ascension Providence Medical Center and Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center, would each receive 957 doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine this week to administer to health care workers. It is the first vaccine to win approval from federal regulators, and others are close behind, with widespread availability expected sometime next year.
In the meantime, Shah said the same use of masks, distancing, hygiene and limited travel that the public health district has recommended for the past nine months can still help mitigate the spread of the virus. It can take more than 15 days for the impact of events such as shelter-in-place orders, mask policies or major holidays to have a measurable effect on the virus’ spread.
“Let’s say an individual was exposed on Memorial Day,” Shah said. “The individual would start symptoms on an average of five days after exposure. After a couple of days, (they) would go get tested. The results would take a few more days, and it will take several more days for us to get the results and conduct the investigation.”
She said Waco’s mask mandate in late June lowered the case count within that time period. The case count was falling when schools reopened in August, then started to rise again. Labor Day, on the other hand, did not have any obvious effect on the numbers. Halloween preceded one of the largest spikes to date.
COVID-19 cases and quarantines have led handful of Waco-area schools to switch to remote-only instruction for the remainder of their semesters, which end Friday. University High School became the latest school to make that switch Tuesday. University will resume in-person instruction Jan. 5, the start of next semester.
Registration for free COVID-19 testing in McLennan County can be found at covidwaco.com.