COVID rates rising in Hays

Halfway through June, Hays County recorded an average of 36 daily cases of COVID-19, and two weeks later, the daily average jumped to 150. Several culprits contributed to this shift, putting the county at a higher rate than its more densely populated neighbor, Travis County.

After phase three of reopening on June 12, daily cases climbed exponentially. State Rep. for House District 45, Erin Zwiener and Dr. Manish Naik, an Internal Medicine Physician and Pandemic Specialist at Austin Regional Clinic, shared why they believe coronavirus cases are on the rise. Multiple factors come to play, including decreased state regulations, expanded testing capacity and increased socialization with looser control. But as cases increase all over Texas, where is the state headed and what can be done to decrease infections?

Both Zwiener and Naik pointed out that increased testing played a role in seeing the rise of infections, and that Hays County did not have enough tests in May, according to Zwiener. But Naik said that not long ago, the community rates of positive cases were running at five to six percent. Over the last few days, depending on the community demographic, the positive rate is between 15 to 30 percent.

The other factor Naik highly considers in the “increased testing means increased positive results” hypothesis, is number of hospitalizations.

“We’re seeing more hospitalizations,” Naik explained. “Whether you’re testing or not, there’s a disease out there; [increased hospitalizations]didn’t start happening until recently. So it’s not just recent testing.”

Although the numbers may seem alarming, there is some light at the end of this long tunnel.

The first piece of good news is, almost half of those infected in Hays County are between the ages of 20-29, where the virus is dramatically less fatal and that age-group is not likely to get severely ill.

This does not mean that they cannot pass the virus to others, only that less hospital beds get filled. Younger people who have the virus must be careful in slowing down the spread by limiting interactions, especially with those who are immunocompromised.

The other piece of good news is scientists have a better grasp on how to treat patients, Naik said. Remedies doctors have recently learned include laying patients on their stomach for better breathing, using a high flow of oxygen along with other techniques which delay the use of ventilators, and using the anti-viral drug, Remdesivir, which seems to have some impact, Naik said.

Other factors that are playing to the county’s favor, which worsened the spread in New York and Italy, are population density, number of smokers and age, explained Naik. For those reasons, we may see a smaller rate of deaths and infections than Italy and New York.

Since the coronavirus entered Travis and Hays County, infection levels have not decreased.

“Really, the bottom line is, we’re trying to avoid having a huge size so it doesn’t overwhelm the hospitals,” Naik said. “One of two things will happen; enough people get exposed until we develop herd immunity, or we wait until we get the vaccine.”

Even when scientists finalize the vaccine, which is hoped to be done by the end of the year, there is still the issue of manufacturing and distribution. Naik said this process would likely be done by mid-to-late 2021.

Texans can protect one-another through social distancing, staying home when possible, frequent hand washing, and wearing masks when near others.

Gov. Greg Abbott asked district representatives to drive these points home during video meetings, Zwiener said. Asking representatives and legislatures to do so has not been effective, especially if they represent swing districts, like in Zwiener’s case.

“What I desperately need is for the governor to send out the message,” Zwiener explained. “A Democrat-only message does not help us hear; it feels like swimming upstream.”

Zwiener saw some hope with the recent changes Abbott made on shutting down certain businesses, primarily bars and tubing outfitters.

“I am encouraged that he is willing to change course,” Zwiener said. “I really did not expect the governor to change course. I am not confident it’s enough, and I hope what this will be followed by better enforcement for health standards in open businesses.”

Certain health standards hold businesses responsible if customers refuse to wear a mask. Surrounding counties have put in a fine for businesses who do not enforce mask-wearing, but that is not the case in Hays County.

Theoretically speaking, Zwiener said, every place has safety standards, but there is confusion as to whether they are mandatory. On top of that, Zwiener said “as far as I can tell, we do not have functional contact tracing in Hays County.”

Zwiener worries that if the situation does not get under control during the next month or so, there will be a nightmare situation in August, when schools reopen their doors. If we continue with the numbers present, she does not believe we can safely reopen schools.

During this time period, the state Capitol has been closed for safety reasons, but Zwiener is angry that this is the case. She believes state representatives and law makers should not be getting protections they are not willing to give to community members.

“The risk has never been greater than it is today and this will probably be true for the next few weeks,” Zwiener told the Hays Free Press. “This is our chance to get better precautions in place so we can open again.”

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Sahar Chmais holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. She has been covering cities in Hays County for one year, touching on residents' struggles and successes, city issues, COVID-19 and more. Prior to reporting on the local spectrum, Sahar reported for a national news organization, covering gun violence. Sahar enjoys working as a local reporter because she gets to work with real people and their stories.

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