After the number of COVID-19 patients in area hospitals jumped by nearly 50 percent in just one week, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District will soon offer residents $100 to get the coronavirus vaccine.

Metro Health has allocated $1 million toward the vaccine incentive effort, said Anita Kurian during a City Council briefing Wednesday. The department is still waiting for approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is providing funding in the form of a grant. Payment to individuals getting vaccinated will come in the form of gift cards and vouchers, she said.

The move comes as nearly every indicator associated with the coronavirus has spiked sharply since early July.

“The latest hospitalization count was 920 — that was yesterday,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said at a news conference. “Just a week ago, [there were] 620 COVID patients in the hospital.

“So our hospitals are stressed … elective surgeries and other routine medical procedures are being put on hold because COVID patients are once again filling up our local hospitals.”

Nirenberg joined representatives from Bexar County, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, and the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council (STRAC) to report the surging numbers and urge residents to get vaccinated. All wore masks in accordance with current guidance from the CDC, which advises everyone to wear face coverings while inside, even those who are vaccinated.

The new seven-day average for COVID-19 cases rose dramatically to 1,146 cases, jumping by 422 cases since last week, and represents an increase of more than 300% since the first week of July, officials said. The San Antonio area also reported 12 deaths last week. As far as health officials know, none of the deaths so far have occurred in vaccinated individuals.

“Even in breakthrough cases, vaccines prevent death,” Nirenberg said. “Vaccines prevent severe illness. Vaccines help reduce transmission but do not eliminate it.”

Of people in the hospital with COVID-19, almost 90% are unvaccinated, he said.

Daily positive cases of COVID-19 in Bexar County from July 1 to Aug. 3. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

In the past four weeks, about 5.3% of new cases were “breakthrough” cases, meaning individuals who were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus tested positive, said Kurian. The delta variant is largely responsible for Bexar County’s increased overall case rate; 88% of all new COVID-19 cases have been caused by that variant, she said. 

While the number of COVID-19 cases has risen quickly, the number of vaccinations has not kept pace. Kurian said that as of Wednesday, 76.3% of eligible Bexar County residents have gotten at least one dose while 63% have been fully vaccinated. On July 23, health officials reported 75% of eligible residents had received at least one dose while 62% had been fully vaccinated. That same day, area hospitals reported 418 COVID-19 patients — meaning the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations has more than doubled in less than two weeks.

At the same time, the average age of those hospitalized has dipped, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said. During the last surge in cases in November, the average age of COVID-19 patients in University Hospital was 54. Now, it’s 48. The youngest patient is currently 11 months old.

Dr. Charles Hankins, the chief medical officer and president of the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, said that children have been more affected during this period of the coronavirus pandemic than before. Only people ages 12 and older are currently eligible for vaccines.

“This delta variant is different,” he said. “[In the beginning of the pandemic], the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio had 5% of their beds filled with COVID patients. Today we have 10% of our pediatric beds filled with COVID. We have four patients in the ICU today on ventilators, with one being 4 years of age.”

The stress on the hospital system also means there are not enough staff, including nurses. Two days ago, the Children’s Hospital had to delay a heart surgery because it lacked the requisite number of nurses to work.

“That’s not elective surgery,” Hankins said. “That could be life-saving surgery. But we had to delay it because of resources.”

Because of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring government entities from imposing vaccination and mask mandates, the city and county can only continue to encourage people to get the vaccine, Nirenberg said.

“We have talked to our legal team, and Gov. Abbott’s order shuts off every possibility we have to issue a mandate,” he said. “We’ve seen what other cities have thought about but keep in mind, we’re a city of 1.6 million people. The ultimate tool against fighting this virus is vaccination. That’s what we’re trying to drive at.”

Kurian estimated that in order to reach “herd immunity,” 70% to 90% of the population would have to be vaccinated. But that is unlikely to happen any time soon with younger children, estimated to make up 20% of Bexar County’s population, still not eligible for the vaccine, she said.

“We still have a significant proportion of unvaccinated folks in our community,” she said. “We still have a long way to go.”

Vaccines are available at no cost and on a walk-up basis at the Alamodome Wednesday through Friday from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m., though those hours will change to 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. starting Aug. 6. Pharmacies such as H-E-B, CVS, and Walgreens also offer the vaccine, along with pop-up clinics around San Antonio.

Vaccine clinics are scheduled for Wednesday at Jefferson High School, 723 Donaldson Ave., and Dawson Community Center, 2500 E. Commerce St.; Thursday at the Witte Museum, 3801 Broadway St.; Cleft of the Rock Church, 6041 Wt Montgomery Rd.; and Southside ISD’s Back to School Bash, 19190 U.S. Highway 281 South. For times and additional clinics, click here.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funding to the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.