Houston hospitals near capacity as delta variant spreads
The rising number of COVID-19 cases at Rice so far this school year reflects the severity of the latest surge of the pandemic within the Houston area. According to data provided by the Texas Medical Center, August saw a record-high number of Covid patients hospitalized at the Texas Medical Center, along with 69,174 confirmed cases countywide — second only to the 71,996 cases in January, when less than three percent of Harris County residents were vaccinated.
Rice hosted a COVID-19 panel composed of university administrators and infectious disease professionals from the Texas Medical Center on Aug. 18 to address the community’s concerns regarding the Delta variant and Rice’s response.
Paul Klotman, president of the Baylor College of Medicine, said in the panel that within about six weeks the Delta variant has become about 90 percent of the viral strain, because it is much more infectious than the original strain of COVID-19. He said that the number of cases continues to rise steadily.
“We are hopeful that this peak will be steep up and steep down,” Klotman said in the panel. “The worst case scenario is if people don’t wear masks and mobility around the country returns to pre-pandemic levels, then the peak can go out to late September or early October.”
In an interview with the Thresher, Klotman said that the Texas Medical Center is still in the midst of a peak with a large caseload and high hospitalization rates. He also said he predicts there will be another 100,000 to 200,000 deaths from COVID-19 by the end of the calendar year.
“Just because [the cases are] not going up doesn’t mean it’s good,” Klotman said. “I think we have a long haul over the next month or so as we come down off of the peak, assuming that’s what it is.”
Rice has recently seen a rise in people testing positive for COVID-19, with more than 100 cases since Aug. 13. The majority of infected people had mild symptoms and none were hospitalized, Kevin Kirby, chair of the crisis management advisory committee, wrote in a Sept. 7 campuswide email.
Klotman said that Rice’s positivity rate is expected because of the vaccine’s 80 to 90 percent efficacy against the Delta variant. He said that the vaccines are working exactly as predicted by dramatically altering the course of the illness and the outcome.
“People are forgetting that breakthrough infections happen all the time. I’ve had the flu two years when I have been vaccinated against the flu,” Klotman said. “The difference is a two day illness instead of a ten day illness and dying.”
Klotman said the Rice student body should encourage unvaccinated students to get vaccinated. 96 percent of undergraduate students reported being vaccinated according to August 22 survey data, with an overall community vaccination rate of 91 percent.
“You wouldn’t want to be in a dormitory with somebody who wasn’t vaccinated against meningitis, believe me,” Klotman said. “I wouldn’t want to live in a dorm with people who are unvaccinated from coronavirus. How do you escape getting infected from them?”
Yousif Shamoo, vice provost for research, said that the existence of vaccinated, asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 presents its own sets of challenges within the Rice community.
“When the vaccines came out, the popular prediction was that even if the vaccine did not completely suppress production of the virus in the host, the amount of virus produced would be greatly reduced,” Shamoo, who conducts research in antimicrobial resistance, said. “It turns out people who are vaccinated can still produce very large amounts of virus comparable to somebody without a vaccine, and they can be asymptomatic.”
Shamoo said that Rice continues to update its COVID-19 policies to adapt to the most recent scientific data regarding the virus. He said that Rice tries to interact with as many pre-published data and as much advice from experts at the Texas Medical Center as possible when making COVID-19 policy decisions.
“I know folks sometimes get a little bit frustrated with science sometimes, because as we learn things we change our mind about things,” Shamoo said in the forum. “But that’s the nature of epidemiology, you have to respond to what the virus is telling you and act accordingly.”
Klotman said that colleges across the country are facing a surprising number of outbreaks and making policy decisions to prevent this is difficult.
“Every university is struggling with this,” Klotman said. “There are no right or wrong answers to this. I know the administration is trying to protect the students and protect the teachers so they are doing everything they can.”
Klotman said he would be uncomfortable eating indoors without knowing the vaccination status of everybody in the room.
“I don’t have a problem with a small group of people in their dorm having dinner together,” Klotman said. “If it’s a large gathering where you don’t know what the vaccination status is … so you don’t know if the person next to you is unvaccinated, I would be uncomfortable.”
Shamoo said that Rice often makes decisions out of an abundance of caution, even if some policy decisions may not be received well by the student body, such as the decision to ban indoor drinking.
Klotman said that while the existing COVID-19 vaccine cannot fully prevent infection from the Delta variant, they are vital for reducing the severity of illness and associated symptoms. Since the roll out of vaccines, only 0.2 percent of people hospitalized with COVID in Texas have been fully vaccinated.
During the panel, Kirby reminded the community that the vaccine survey is required for all Rice community members. Jerusha Kasch, director for institutional crisis management, also said in the forum that she urges students to fill out the public health form if exposed to COVID-19 and to be cooperative with the contact tracing team.
“I can tell you that when people willfully disregard the public health policy that we have put in place, the consequences are severe, and we have taken action against people who we have found to violate our policies,” Kirby said.
Rice Emergency Medical Services Director Lisa Basgall encouraged students to monitor their health regularly and call Student Health Services or REMS if assistance is needed. Basgall also said that many Texas Medical Center facilities offer 24/7 telehealth services for students seeking medical care.
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