With omicron now the dominant strain of coronavirus causing new infections in the U.S., and the nation’s first confirmed death from the variant reported Tuesday in Harris County, local health officials are bracing for impact.

What exactly that impact will be, however, remains to be seen.

 Juan Gutiérrez, a University of Texas at San Antonio mathematics professor who accurately modeled the last two major COVID-19 waves in San Antonio weeks before they occurred, says now is the time to ramp up COVID-19 precautions once again.

His latest models show an omicron wave that could be devastating to the San Antonio region. Over the course of the next three months, Gutiérrez expects to see somewhere between 50,000 and 300,000 new cases, and between 500 and 5,000 additional deaths.

As of Tuesday, Bexar County has reported 333,548 cases and 4,971 deaths since March 2020. Experts believe both cases numbers and deaths are likely undercounted.

Gutiérrez acknowledges that more data will be required to refine his model. But he’s not waiting on that data to sound the alarm, urging residents to get vaccinated, get their COVID-19 booster shot if they haven’t yet and wear N-95 masks in public.

“This virus doesn’t have time for boredom or tiredness,” he said. “It is going to do what it’s going to do, and omicron is the most efficient virus that we have [seen].”

“Given the fact that we have a very substantial population — we have over half a million people in Bexar County who are [not yet vaccinated] — we can expect at least half of those to be infected,” Gutiérrez said.

Those who will be hit hardest are those who still aren’t vaccinated, he said. Also at risk are almost 3% of the population who are immunocompromised, and roughly 11% who are children under the vaccination age.

Thankfully, however, symptoms of omicron seem to be less severe than other strains, said Dr. Jason Bowling, University Health epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist at UT Health San Antonio.

“I’m hopeful we may not see as many hospitalizations because it may not be as severe as delta,” Bowling said. “That’s still what we’re all waiting to see, but it seems that way.”

With more people vaccinated locally, doctors are also hoping those who do get sick will have less severe symptoms, meaning there will be fewer hospitalizations, Bowling said.

While omicron breakthrough cases are occurring more often than with other variants, it’s the unvaccinated who are at the greatest risk, Bowling said. Those who have received a booster of Pfizer or Moderna are reporting slighter symptoms, he noted.

As of yet, San Antonio is not experiencing a significant increase in hospitalizations, said Metro Health public information officer Cleo Garcia. Cases appear to be ticking up, however; the seven-day average hit 311 cases Tuesday, after hovering in the low 200s for the past few weeks.

Garcia echoed other experts that the unvaccinated will likely experience more severe illness and require hospitalizations versus those who are vaccinated. And if Gutierrez’s high-end predictions are realized, it’s possible the numbers of severely ill patients could still overwhelm a health care system that’s been overloaded and stressed with COVID-19 patients for the past two years.

“That is why we are encouraging everyone to get vaccinated and get their booster vaccine if they are eligible,” she said. “We want to keep the hospitalizations numbers down.”

Also Tuesday, President Joe Biden told vaccinated Americans that they should feel safe celebrating the holidays this week so long as they take proper precautions. The president also warned the millions of unvaccinated Americans they run a high risk of becoming ill or hospitalized as omicron cases rise.

Biden also announced new initiatives to battle against the oncoming omicron wave, including a plan to prepare 1,000 military service members to deploy to overburdened hospitals across the country in January and February, and the purchase of half a billion at home rapid COVID-19 tests that will be mailed to any American who requests one.

The president also announced increased vaccine access with new vaccination sites, and said he plans to deploy hundreds of additional vaccine administrators. He added that he is working with FEMA to expand hospital capacity and spread medical supplies to places that may need them in the coming weeks.

In an effort to bolster its own forces, earlier this week Metro Health sent out a community plea for volunteers who could help assist the department with providing vaccinations and/or with answering vaccine-related questions from the community.

For more information on how to sign up as a volunteer, click here.

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett is the Science & Utilities reporter for the San Antonio Report.