Bexar County saw the second-highest increase in people testing positive for COVID-19 on Thursday, with 408 new cases, bringing the total case count to 5,550.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg called the increase in positives a “disturbing trend” that coincides with a 26-person uptick in hospitalizations, bringing the patient count to 267. That leaves just 24 percent of hospital beds available to meet the growing need for treatment for those experiencing severe symptoms. 

Of those hospitalized, 92 are being treated in area intensive care units, and 40 are on ventilators. Two additional deaths were reported, bringing the total to 92.  

“These trends are going in the wrong direction, which is why we are calling on you to act and make sure that you’re practicing physical distancing, wearing a mask, and not letting your guard down,” Nirenberg said at a Thursday briefing. These are the “tried and true” ways to prevent the spread.

In response to the spike in cases over the last several days, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff issued a new executive order Wednesday. Under the policy, which takes effect Monday, businesses are charged with mandating the use of masks, by both employees and customers, when social distancing is not feasible.

UT Health San Antonio on Thursday launched a public education initiative to highlight the science behind face masks as being integral to protecting people from contracting the coronavirus.

Multiple studies have proven the effectiveness of wearing masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19, “this is not fear-mongering,” said Dr. Ruth Berggren, infectious disease specialist and internal medicine physician at UT Health San Antonio. ““If we want to continue to not have a lockdown, masks and physical distancing are all we have.”

While previous mask policies and social distancing measures helped to stop the spread of COVID-19, people have “let their guard down,” and are not wearing face coverings despite knowing the virus is easily transmitted.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said one million masks will arrive at the County in the next week and will be distributed to area businesses – including dry cleaners, hair salons, and other small businesses – to ensure the proper protective equipment is available for customers and employees. 

“Too many people are going around without a face mask, and it’s putting in danger people who have underlying health issues,” Wolff said. “You need to have respect for people that you’re around because you could transmit it to somebody that’s vulnerable and that person can enter the hospital and that person could die. You are responsible not to do that.”

Eric Epley, executive director of the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council, a network of hospitals and first responders across 22 counties that maintains the regional trauma and emergency health care system, said the continued jump in numbers should be concerning for the younger population because there has been a seven-year drop in the age range of people being admitted to hospitals. 

“Young people need to be reminded that they might survive, but a hospital stay is not cheap,” Epley said, noting it could cost anywhere from $700 to $1800 for a short hospital visit, and be “extremely expensive” for anyone staying over a week. 

“Use your mask, wear it all the time, stay at home, social distance, and wash your hands,” Epley said.  “That’s the hero move for everybody in this city, and our county, and in the region.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.