Concerns over COVID-19 delta variant grow as cases rise in North Texas

There’s a renewed push to get people vaccinated as the dangerous delta strain of the coronavirus spreads, causing a rise in cases and hospitalizations both locally and nationally.

Health officials in Dallas and Tarrant counties say hospitalizations and cases have started to tick back up.

They still remain relatively low, but it is something health officials are watching. They expect those numbers to grow over the next several weeks. 

Texas is starting to see an increase in the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests as the delta variant catches on. Out of 61,000 tests reported on Sunday, the positive ones remain over 5%. It was around half that rate at the end of May.

In the past two weeks, there has also been a noticeable increase in people being sick enough with COVID-19 to be in hospitals statewide. The number rose to almost 1,700. It’s the most in one month.

In the North Texas region, local health officials say the number of those hospitalized with COVID-19 has almost doubled over the last month with now more than 400 hospitalizations. 

In Dallas County, they're seeing the highest number of ICU bed occupancy since mid-May, and the overwhelming majority of those hospitalized with COVID are unvaccinated.

Hospitalizations are significantly down compared to the beginning of the year.

"As you know, we’ve had a real surge in the middle of January: 4,250 patients," explained DFW hospital Council CEO Steve Love. "And we’re at 415 today so, that’s a significant improvement."

But Tuesday’s count is the highest it’s been since May 17. 

Meanwhile, public health officials are seeing the number of those getting vaccinated decreasing. 

"That's a concern," said Dallas County Health Director Dr. Philip Huang. "A lot of how we do over the next weeks and months depends on how we continue to perform in terms of getting these remaining persons vaccinated."

Doctors believe the recent trend is due to a combination of factors, including people who are unvaccinated and the delta variant circulating in the area. 

"National level data and regional data, multi-state data is showing the delta variant is spreading faster," said Tarrant County Public Health Director Vinny Taneja. "You can assume it’s here as well."

The delta variant initially identified in India has been in the DFW area since May.

Researchers at UT Southwestern have seen the variant jump by 30% over the last six weeks, with numbers doubling every week or two.

"It's definitely more contagious and more transmissible," said Dr. Jeffrey SoRelle with UT Southwestern. "We've seen that both in Great Britain and in several other places where it has quickly become dominant. Even though the UK variant is itself more transmissible, this one's just even more transmissible than that."

Dr. Huang points to a new dashboard tracking vaccinations. It shows 46.9% of people have received at least one shot.

It also gives a herd immunity estimate, which combines vaccines with COVID-19 cases.

The herd immunity goal is 80%. That’s now been met in Dallas County, according to the dashboard. 

Still, Huang says they’d like to see 80% of people fully vaccinated.

"Especially with the delta variant confirmed in our community, it is circulating," he said. "It’s more highly transmissible."

There are similar concerns on the national level.

The delta variant has health officials concerned, especially in many southeast and midwestern states where vaccination rates are low and restrictions are being lifted.

The Centers for Disease Control said roughly 1,000 counties in the United States have vaccination rates lower than 30%.

The White House is now launching a new task force to combat the delta variant. Response teams are getting ready to assist states, increase testing, administer treatments and more.

"The Delta variant is already responsible for half of all cases in many parts of this country," said President Joe Biden. "It’s more easily transmissible and potentially more dangerous." 

"The pandemic is not over and we are not done with all our efforts to encourage vaccination," said Dr. Terry Adirim, the acting assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs.

Doctors continue to agree the best way to fight COVID-19 is by getting vaccinated.

"Let’s get it done while the numbers are low because we can’t afford to get into another strong surge," Taneja said. "Because it has health impact in the community, economic impact in the community, we just can’t afford that."

So far, doctors say the vaccines have shown to be effective against the variants. 

The DFW Hospital Council estimates about 99% of COVID hospitalizations in our area are among people who are not vaccinated.