Though the region continues to see low coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, local officials urged Bexar County residents to get vaccinated before gathering with their friends and family for the holidays.

“We want everyone to enjoy the winter holidays with your loved ones and to do so safely amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Tuesday at news conference.

The need for higher vaccination rates was only emphasized by the recently identified omicron variant of the coronavirus, said Claude Jacob, director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.

“While no cases of the variant have been detected in the U.S. so far, we can expect to see some cases fairly soon as this situation evolves around the globe,” Jacob said.

Jacob joined Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Eric Epley, executive director of the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council, for the news conference ahead of the Christmas holidays. While a third of the overall Bexar County population still needs to be vaccinated, the trajectory looks promising, Wolff said. Metro Health reported Tuesday that 79% of adults in Bexar County are fully vaccinated and 69% of residents 5 years and older are fully vaccinated.

“We’re pleased to see our data,” Wolff said. “A lot of parents are having their children vaccinated and that’s really important. … We know that if they’re not vaccinated, it makes it very easy to pass it on to someone else at school or pass it on to their parents or to their grandparents.”

Nearly a month after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved the Pfizer vaccine for children as young as 5 years old, the Wonderland of the Americas vaccination site has already administered 7,000 first doses to children and began giving out second doses on Monday, Wolff said. Wonderland has also given out about 25,000 booster shots to adults, which the CDC has recommended for everyone 18 years of age and older.

Jacob asked parents to continue to vaccinate their children. That is one of the strongest protections against the coronavirus, he said.

“To parents, we understand it’s a personal decision,” he said. “But at the end of the day, think about what we’re sharing here [and] why we’re sharing this. [Hospital system] admissions are driven by those who are unvaccinated, mostly.”

Jacob said there were still $100 H-E-B gift cards available for people who get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Of the 10,000 that Metro Health purchased, only 2,882 have been claimed so far.

Bexar County’s risk level for coronavirus transmission is still graded as “low.” As fewer people are hospitalized for COVID-19, the stress on the hospital system has lessened, said Epley. On Aug. 23, the hospital system saw a peak of 1,466 people admitted for the coronavirus. On Tuesday, that number was 184. The dip in COVID case rates also allowed area hospitals to bid adieu to state-contracted nurses who were brought in to help — in August, there were 806 state-contracted nurses bolstering hospitals’ local staff. 

“Today we have 96 and by Friday, we will have zero,” Epley said.

Of the people hospitalized for COVID-19 in area hospitals on Tuesday, 81% are unvaccinated, he added.

“A while back it was about 90%,” Epley said. “And so that’s going to continue to decrease. Remember, the more people we get vaccinated, the more people who are going to be at a hospital are going to be vaccinated.”

Though vaccines are the most important way to combat coronavirus transmission, using masks in crowded indoor spaces is still important, Wolff said. He acknowledged that he attended several “social gatherings” in the past month, where people were not always wearing masks.

“Let’s just be a little more careful,” he said. “I need to be a little more careful myself.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.