A health care worker at University Hospital communicates with his patient through a small window into the room.
A health care worker at University Hospital communicates with a COVID-19 patient through window into a room. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Deaths caused by COVID-19 in Bexar County are fast approaching 2,000, as local officials on Monday confirmed another 13 fatalities caused by the disease.

With 1,980 confirmed deaths attributed to COVID-19 and as the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District works to verify another 177 deaths, COVID-19 would be among the top causes of death in Bexar County in most years. In 2017, the most recent year for which data could be found, heart disease and cancer killed more than 3,100 and 2,600 residents, respectively. Stroke was the third-leading cause of death, claiming 743 lives.

In positive news, however, the rate of residents testing positive for the coronavirus declined again this week, to 15%, after hitting a peak of 23.2% at the beginning of the year. Yet, it is still unclear whether new cases are beginning to level off in Bexar County as they have in other parts of the country.

“We’re not in a position quite yet to say if this is the peak of the surge or not,” said Rita Espinoza, chief of epidemiology at Metro Health. “We’re going to have to monitor the data over the next several weeks. … A lot of the indicators are going down, but we still have a long way to go.”

Although more COVID-19 patients were in local hospitals on Monday than on Sunday, the county saw a relative dip in the number of new hospital admissions reported over the previous 24 hours with 117.

As more than 50 hospitals in Texas have reached capacity in their intensive care units in the past month, according to the Texas Tribune, the hospitals in San Antonio have so far not reached their limit, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said on Monday, adding the caveat that “all of the hospitals are under severe stress.”

“At this point, it doesn’t look like, based on the load-balancing they’re doing in between their individual facilities, anyone has maxed out,” Nirenberg said. But “that could occur from one hour to the next.”

You can search an interactive database of state hospitaIs’ ICU capacity with this Texas Tribune tool. According to the tool, Southwest General Hospital and Methodist Hospital were the two most stressed facilities in San Antonio as of Jan. 8 with 99.7% and 98.4% occupancy, respectively.

A case increase of 2,082 on Monday brought the seven-day average up slightly, to 1,722, but Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the number included cases from local labs that lagged in their reporting over the weekend. For context, fewer than 300 cases were reported on Sunday.

Bexar County vaccine providers are set to receive another roughly 25,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine this week, including UT Health San Antonio. The organization was recently named a new vaccination hub.

More than 100,000 Bexar County residents have so far been vaccinated at least once, according to State data. That accounts for a little more than 5% of the local population, a vaccination rate that is in line with statewide numbers.

As coronavirus cases begin to plateau nationwide, the emergence of an increasing number of new COVID-19 strains – including the appearance of a strain originally identified in Brazil in the U.S. Monday – is driving unease around the national pandemic response. Recent findings, however, have proven the Moderna vaccine effective against strains first identified in the United Kingdom and the Republic of South Africa.

Espinoza said on Monday that a variant strain has not been identified in Bexar County.

“But we would also not suspect that it isn’t here,” she said. “We would act as though it is.”

The variant strain first identified in the U.K. has been found to be 50% more contagious than the original strain that has been spreading in the U.S. It is expected to become the dominant strain in this country by March.

Espinoza said the health guidelines residents have been following also apply for the new variants: wearing masks, staying 6 feet apart from others, and avoiding indoor contact with anyone outside their household.

Here are the local coronavirus numbers as of 7 p.m. Monday:

  • 162,108 total cases, 2,082 new cases
  • 1,980 deaths, 13 new deaths
  • 1,402 in hospital, 13% beds available
  • 409 patients in intensive care
  • 263 patients on ventilators, 51% ventilators available
  • 102,364 residents vaccinated (at least one dose)

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.