COVID numbers climbing again

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

New trends with the COVID-19 virus could be a sign that the late fall and winter months could be as troubling as many health experts feared.

Local, state and national numbers are climbing by most every measure, particularly in the last two weeks.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in new cases reported to us, slowly over the past few weeks,” said Nicole Evert, Epidemiology and Emergency Preparedness Director with the Williamson County and Cities Health District. “In September, I think we were seeing 20 to 30 new cases per day and we’re moving toward that 60 to 70 cases per day, so it’s kind of that gradual increase.”

The increase may have been gradual, but it has been easy to notice. The daily new case average in Williamson County was 24 in September after overcoming the mid-summer spike that kept much of the county under tight restrictions. But in October that number was up to 33 and through 10 days of November the daily average is 42 new cases.

Statewide number are showing a similar trend, nearly doubling in early November. September averaged 4,651 cases per day in Texas, climbing to 4,914 in October before shooting up to 7,363 per day so far this month.

While Williamson County has avoided the trend of higher hospitalizations and fatalities the state has seen, Texas has 6,170 hospitalized with COVID, up from 3,190 on Oct. 1. There have been 839 deaths in November through 10 days, bringing the state total to 18,663.

In total cases, the United States has surpassed 10 million cases, with Texas just shy of one million and Williamson County topping 10,000.

Another key indicator in how COVID is trending is the rolling seven day case average published by the Centers for Disease Control. Since Oct. 23, that number has grown steadily from 428,795 to 801,000 Tuesday.

In Liberty Hill, the most recent numbers provided by City Emergency Management Director Casey Cobb showed four active cases locally with 228 recovered since March.

The Liberty Hill ISD tracker shows six active cases in the school district, including three high school students, one student and one staff member at the junior high, and one student at Bill Burden Elementary.

Increased numbers in gathering places and holiday functions are suspected to be the primary cause of higher case numbers.

“We are seeing perhaps the impacts of Halloween gatherings at this point,” Evert said. “The reopening of bars and restaurants and the increased capacity at those establishments, so it’s basically the social impact of us all wanting to get back out there and live our lives normally. We have to realize there’s still a pandemic waiting for us. We believe the impact is likely because of those reasons.”

Last spring, the key demographic being impacted by COVID was senior citizens, but Evert said that has changed some this fall.

“At this point we’re actually seeing about 30 percent of our new cases in the 18-30 year old range, so it is skewing a little bit toward a younger group at this point,” she said. “Over the past 60 days we have seen an increase in that 14 to 17-year old range, so that’s like high school students. Is that a result of the schools reopening and increasing their capacity? Possibly. We would expect there to be some increase in transmission as folks go back to school even with mitigation measures in place.”

What health officials know and recommend about precautionary measures hasn’t changed much outside of knowing that masks have made a real impact in keeping numbers as low as they have been.

“We know a lot more about masks and how they do limit transmission and limit spread in certain situations,” Evert said. “I know everyone is tired of wearing them, but I think they have really made a difference in bringing us back down that curve. I think we all share that same concern that trends can go back up, and do seem to be going back as a result of some of these measures not being followed.”

Entering the traditional flu season, Evert said it is as important as ever to watch symptoms and seek treatment right away.

“The symptoms are obviously very similar between the two,” Evert said. “You have fever, body aches, cough, runny nose in both of these, so if you do feel sick we urge you to exclude yourself from your family and try to get testing at your provider’s office as soon as possible. They can run both tests at the same time in most places, and they’re rapid at this point for both. In theory you could have an answer pretty quickly.”

With all the precautions in place for COVID, there is a possibility that the regular flu season might not see such high numbers.

“Right now we’re seeing pretty low levels of flu, and that’s good,” Evert said. “What we’re hoping – if there is a plus to COVID – is that a lot of these measures that we’re taking to prevent COVID will actually result in a lower activity flu season,” she said.

Evert said with the holidays approaching, and so many reasons to gather or celebrate in groups, it will be as important as ever to consider those decisions carefully.

“It is going to be really important as we head into the holidays that we are maintaining vigilance with COVID, continuing with those mitigation measures – the mask wearing, the social distancing of that six feet, hand washing and even getting your flu shot. It is just a continuation of the same things we’ve been preaching essentially for months now. I think it’s going to become very important that we all kind of buckle down and embrace those as we head into the holidays to keep ourselves safe as well as our families.”

While not wanting to dampen the holiday, officials are promoting efforts to celebrate in ways that can honor social distancing and avoid opportunities for the virus to easily spread.

“We’re still recommending limiting those social gatherings outside of your household,” Evert said. “Obviously choosing gatherings that are outside, and in locations where you are able to social distance, these events are going to be preferred. I know there are a lot of communities talking about drive-thru lights and other unique approaches to try to get into the holiday spirit but not exposing yourself.”

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