Infection rates are in decline, but that doesn't mean the coronavirus isn't still widespread in the community, local health officials said.
As the coronavirus positivity rate fell below 10%, local officials reported the first two cases of the more contagious variant first detected in the United Kingdom. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Bexar County’s first two cases of the United Kingdom variant of the coronavirus have been detected in local residents, San Antonio officials said Tuesday.

The variant, formally known as B.1.1.7., has been found to be more transmissible and slightly more lethal than the original strain of the COVID-19-causing coronavirus first detected in December 2019. Each of the cases remains under investigation, and the condition of the two residents is unknown pending the investigation’s conclusion, said Rita Espinoza, chief of epidemiology at the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.

“This serves as a wake up call for the community to continue to do your best to follow the guidance of our public health authorities, and do not let your guard down,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said at a Tuesday briefing.

Metro Health recommends residents continue observing the same health guidance to avoid the U.K. strain of the virus: handwashing, wearing a mask, and keeping at least 6 feet of distance between yourself and others.

Early evidence shows the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are effective against the U.K. variant, but more analysis is needed on the variants first detected in South Africa and Brazil. Neither of those variants has been identified in San Antonio.

Just about three weeks ago, local hospitals were facing an unprecedented wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations and battling a surge that was stronger than the summer’s with seemingly no end in sight.

Reaching a high of 1,520 on Jan. 18, the COVID-19 patient count on Tuesday stood at 884, as stress on local hospitals continues to lessen.

It exacted a tremendous toll, no doubt, with January accounting for by far the most number of deaths of any month in the pandemic. On the bright side, however, local officials reported no new deaths on Tuesday for the first time in weeks. The local death toll remains at 2,362.

But with vaccines in tow and an acceleration of the rollout, there is hope we are past the worst of this pandemic – that is, if the emergent coronavirus variants do not take hold before vaccinations can neutralize them.

The decline in the rate of positive tests is also an optimism-inducing statistic, though it’s still far from the desired 5% or less. On Monday, Metro Health officials announced the positivity rate fell from 11.4% the previous week to 9.7%.

The positivity rate means the local COVID-19 protocols for schools have been loosened, going from the severe risk level in which in-person instruction is not recommended to the intermediate level in which school occupancy can rise to no more than 50% occupancy. But San Antonio school districts have only roughly followed these guidelines anyway. The news of the decline in positivity means districts will look to bring more students to campus.

If you called WellMed’s COVID-19 vaccine registration hotline to make an appointment and weren’t successful, you’re not alone. As we’ve seen with previous openings, phone lines were overwhelmed, and some could not get through. This is not WellMed’s fault; it is the result of a nationwide system that has clearly fallen below expectations thus far.

Some have argued a vaccine waitlist, such as the ones set up in Austin, Dallas, and Houston, would help allay the consternation trying to sign up for the vaccine has brought about. But Espinoza appeared to pour cold water on the idea on Tuesday after Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger last week outlined some of the reasons the local health authority is not recommending a centralized vaccine registry. Espinoza added that other vaccine hubs have told Metro Health creating a registry “was not the best option to go with.”

Vaccinations will be available at a Northwest San Antonio Walmart pharmacy store beginning Friday. The 5555 De Zavala Road location will administer the vaccine to residents through the White House’s new initiative sending direct shipments of the vaccine to retail pharmacies. Only those who are eligible under phases 1A and 1B can sign up, which will be available on the Walmart website. And the City of Boerne will host a COVID-19 vaccination hub on Friday as it looks to administer 500 doses to eligible recipients, according to KSAT-12.

On Tuesday, more than 1,300 new cases of the coronavirus were reported in Bexar County, but that number includes cases from Monday as state laboratory results continue a post-weekend lag in reporting.

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

  • 184,784 total cases, 1,348 new cases
  • 2,362 deaths, no new deaths
  • 884 in hospital, 13% beds available
  • 341 patients in intensive care
  • 198 patients on ventilators, 56% ventilators available
  • 171,277 residents vaccinated (at least one dose)

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JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is the San Antonio Report's audience engagement editor.