Bexar County hospitals have seen a 75% increase in coronavirus-positive patients admitted in the past week, said Dr. Bryan Alsip, chief medical officer of University Hospital.

“From the 23rd of December to the 30th of December, which is yesterday, we went from 200 COVID-positive patients to 352,” Alsip said Friday.

University Health officials implored Bexar County residents to not visit the emergency room if they are experiencing mild symptoms of COVID-19, in a news release the day before: “It is urgent that people only come to the ER for a true emergency.”

The “huge spike in patients” also includes, in addition to COVID-19 patients, critical trauma patients, heart attacks, strokes and those with serious complications from diabetes. 

Alsip joined the Chief Nursing Executive Tommye Austin, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Sheriff Javier Salazar and Mayor Ron Nirenberg at a Friday news conference to caution Bexar County residents about coronavirus spread ahead of New Year’s Eve celebrations. The omicron variant, currently the dominant strain of the coronavirus in the United States, has spread quickly in Texas.

The City of San Antonio revived its official New Year’s Eve celebration downtown, but Nirenberg encouraged attendees to keep physical distance from and wear masks when around people outside of their households, even though the event is outdoors.

“We know that there’s going to be gatherings all over the place all across this country,” Nirenberg said. “But what we want to focus on is making sure people have the proper safety precautions and are taking this seriously.”

Vaccines are the main line of defense against the coronavirus, local officials stressed. Right now, area hospitals are mostly seeing unvaccinated coronavirus patients; about eight out of 10 patients admitted for COVID-19 have not been vaccinated.

“I urge every San Antonian to embrace safe behavior to help us get through the omicron surge as quickly as possible and thwart the spread as we move forward,” Nirenberg said.

Alsip urged people to consider staying home and refrain from gathering with people outside of their households. If people still plan to celebrate Friday with friends, he recommended establishing as many layers of protection as possible to prevent coronavirus transmission.

“That starts with vaccination. It starts with getting your booster. It includes wearing a mask, a good mask that’s properly worn, properly fitted,” he said. 

He added that getting a COVID test ahead of time to ensure no COVID-positive people attend gatherings helps.

“It’s helpful if you can do it outdoors,” he said. “We’re fortunate to live in San Antonio where we can get outdoors. It really, really lowers the risk. So the more of those layers you can put into place, the more likely it is to feel more safe.”

Nirenberg reminded residents that there are free testing sites around Bexar County, though most are closed Friday and Saturday for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. 

On Thursday, Terry Corless, the CEO of the MadDogs Restaurant Group, announced a new free COVID testing site in partnership with Capitol Medical Services at the Goodwill parking lot in North San Antonio at 12332 Interstate Highway 10 West. That site will be open Monday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Wolff and Alsip both acknowledged the shortage of rapid coronavirus tests in Bexar County.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff speaks during a press conference urging residents to celebrate New Years safely to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on Friday.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff implores people to get vaccinated during a press conference on Friday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

“We do have the benefit of community testing sites, which is great, but we don’t have enough home testing options,” Alsip said. “The pharmacies are really limited in supplies, we’ve been told. The federal government is working on that but we need that now — or sooner if possible.”

While overall the omicron variant seems to cause less severe cases of COVID-19, more cases of COVID-positive patients still put stress on the hospital system while a staffing shortage continues, Alsip said. The state has committed to allocating 411 additional nurses to Bexar County hospitals, but none of them will be in place until at least Monday, Wolff said.

“I would think that that’s going to be necessary because you’ve got to remember, the health care workers are almost around the clock,” Wolff said. “They get sick just like everybody else gets sick. It’s a big danger to them. And so we’re probably going to continue to need some outside help, just to make sure that we can handle whatever rise we may have in hospitalizations.”

Rather that overcrowd emergency rooms, those who do develop COVID-19 symptoms should first contact their primary care provider, University Health officials stated, and ideally monitor and manage their symptoms at home. Doctor’s offices can also provide instruction on what to do if symptoms worsen.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.