One week early in January, nearly 1,000 City of San Antonio employees were at home on sick leave, City Manager Erik Walsh told me last week. Public schools reported similar mass absences of teachers as districts struggled to recruit substitute teachers to fill the gap. University leaders prudently delayed the start of the new semester, or left campuses largely closed with classes conducted remotely.

Local businesses pivoted yet again, many suspending a return to in-office work and sending employees to work from home.

Vaccinations are protecting the majority of San Antonians aged 5 and older from the worst effects of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, but those who regard the latest spike in COVID-19 as a less than serious moment in the pandemic are ignoring its impact on life and work here.

It could get worse before it gets better in the coming weeks as public health officials and local leaders watch the daily numbers for positivity rate, new infections, hospitalizations and deaths. January has not been kind to San Antonio.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg serves as chairman of Texas’ Big City Mayors, which convened virtually Friday to hear a sobering update from Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services. Later that day, Nirenberg toured the nonprofit Community Labs at BioBridge Global, where technicians told him half of the hundreds of tests processed Friday were positive for COVID-19.

That’s in a city with an official positivity rate of 31%. Other Texas cities also have positivity rates approaching 50%.

Community Labs ramped up its area testing operations weeks ago as the full dimensions of the highly infectious omicron variant became evident. It currently offers free tests at six different locations and at more than 300 school campuses. Click here for locations and hours.

“The next one to three weeks are critical as we see the continued pervasiveness of omicron,” Nirenberg said in a Friday interview. “The reality is our hands are tied in terms of regulatory tools we have available, given state constraints and court decisions. Our best defense is a tool we have had available for the last year, which is the COVID-19 vaccination. Vaccination will prevent most people from becoming seriously ill and ending up in the hospital. We need to use that tool, and keep masking up.”

While more than 70% of people in San Antonio aged 5 and up have received two vaccination doses, that number falls from there. Only 415,000 booster doses have been administered here, according to Nirenberg., who said only 10% of children ages 5-11 have been vaccinated. San Antonio is still a city at risk, which is why all of us know people who have tested positive this month.

The COVID-19 statistics published on the San Antonio Report’s home page tell the story: The city passed the 5,000 death mark Thursday, while more than 1,000 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Friday.

As new daily data comes in, a swing back toward increased positivity will not surprise anyone in local leadership. Whatever the numbers, the people doing the most to protect us have pandemic fatigue.

San Antonio hospitals, already challenged by the new year’s surge in COVID-19, are facing a critical shortage of nurses. A bipartisan group of area lawmakers has called on Gov. Greg Abbott to send health care workers to the city to relieve overwhelmed staff.

“We are feeling the brunt of this in our frontline services that we depend on every day, from hospital staff to firefighters to teachers in our schools,” Nirenberg said. “We need to stay vigilant. Omicron is challenging their capacity to serve, while the state has turned away from any kind of intervention at all.”

Even if the spread of the virus subsides in the coming weeks, local hospitals are understaffed and straining to meet the spike. Hospitalization levels have not reached those of early 2021, but they have quickly multiplied.

Overworked, vulnerable frontline workers continue to be taken for granted as many people have met the omicron surge with a shrug.

A fellow journalist, married to a U.S. army physician based at Fort Sam Houston who recently came home from a long deployment to Afghanistan, said her spouse has been ordered to ship out yet again, this time with other federal health officials to a hospital outside Texas where medical staff is overwhelmed by the influx of newly infected patients.

A registered nurse visiting San Antonio from San Francisco last week recounted how routine and numbing it has become as she and other professional staff risk infection tending to the largely unvaccinated now filling hospital beds. Dealing with unvaccinated family members hostile to staff and rules requiring mask use and social distancing has become an unwelcome part of the job.

Those of us who have received the booster will weather infection with less intense symptoms and avoid hospitalization or worse. We have found new ways to do our jobs, to socialize with friends, to venture out from home to shop, to dine, to recreate, to walk the dog. Life in 2022 is very different than life in 2019, yet markedly better than life in 2020 when the world and the economy shut down.

We who are fortunate to be healthy and financially solvent are, in effect, now living with the virus, even as omicron has spread like wildfire across the states, averaging more than 800,000 new cases daily last week. The virus eventually will peak and then subside. Then it will mutate yet again. The rate of contagion and severity of the next version will not be known until after it has hit.

Those still resisting vaccination, who fear a harmless injection more than serious disease, will remain the most vulnerable to infection, to infecting others, and to learning the hard way they were wrong to choose quackery over real science.

Living with COVID-19 means accepting mask use and other sensible precautions as part of daily life. It means continuing to redefine workplace rules, social behavior and how we manage public gatherings. What works one month might not work the next, as we continually evaluate the evidence at hand and act with everyone’s best interests in mind.

Shutting down again is not an option. Only greater rates of vaccination promise real relief.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.