City, county, and health officials issued a public advisory Wednesday recommending all San Antonio residents, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, wear a face mask when in indoor public settings. 

COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased in recent days, from 585 on Tuesday to 629 on Wednesday. The sharp rise in serious illness is due in part to the rapid spread of the highly contagious and deadly delta variant of the virus. 

“I don’t think we can say it in strong enough terms what a dangerous situation we’re in right now,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. 

About 95% of those currently hospitalized were not vaccinated, he said. “They’re putting themselves in great jeopardy. They’re putting everybody else in great jeopardy.”

Only 63% of eligible Bexar County residents are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District estimates about 120,000 people have not received a second dose of the two-dose vaccine regimen needed to be fully immunized. 

On Tuesday, Metro Health said the local positivity rate had increased from 13% to 17% in just one week. Officials estimate 88% of all local COVID-19 cases are attributable to the Delta variant.

The new mask guidance aligns San Antonio with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released a new set of guidelines on Tuesday recommending that everyone — even those who are vaccinated — living in areas of “substantial” or “high” transmission levels wear face masks indoors. 

“We need more people to get vaccinated — getting vaccinated is your best defense against COVID-19; it will protect you against hospitalization and death,” said Dr. Junda Woo, medical director for Metro Health. “If you’ve been waiting for final [Food and Drug Administration] authorization, the vaccine has emergency use authorization because we’re in an emergency, and the virus is moving faster than the FDA approval process can.”

The steep rise in admissions is putting area hospitals under stress, said Dr. Bryan Alsip, University Health’s chief medical officer. Currently, 192 people are in the intensive care units and 86 on ventilators.

Though hospitals, doctors, and nurses are resilient and have adapted to rapid-fire changes during the ongoing pandemic, Alsip said, “what is different now, and particularly frustrating is that nearly every COVID patient admission is completely preventable. Health care staff witness this every single day, and it’s very, very frustrating.” 

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he and Wolff have sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott requesting additional assistance to help hospitals cope with the rising number of cases. 

“We’re also requesting that he consider amending his order to allow governmental employers to require face masks to prevent the continued spread by the highly transmissible delta variant, and any other potential variant,” Nirenberg said.

“We’re also asking to consider allowing school officials to enact mask mandates.”

Wolff also announced during the afternoon press conference that the South Texas Regional Advisory Council (STRAC) is reopening its Regional Infusion Center, previously established at the Freeman Coliseum to administer doses of monoclonal antibodies to patients who are positive for coronavirus and at risk of becoming very sick. 

On Tuesday, Gov. Abbott responded to the CDC’s new guidance by reiterating the executive order he signed in May prohibiting governmental entities from requiring or mandating mask-wearing, and stated “now is the time for personal responsibility.”

City Attorney Andy Segovia said that despite the governor’s order, San Antonio would follow any potential federal authority regarding mask mandates and vaccines, unless a higher court rules against it. “If there is a federal mandate, we will follow it until told otherwise,” he said.

In recent days, authorities across the U.S. have instituted public health mandates regarding face masks and vaccines, with President Joe Biden expected to announce a requirement that all federal employees and contractors be vaccinated against COVID-19, or be required to submit to regular testing and mitigation requirements. 

“We’re all in this together, and wearing a mask is a step that we can all take to help each other in our community,” Nirenberg said. “It’s within our power to slow the spread by working together and you can do your part by getting vaccinated and wearing a mask in an indoor public setting as we try to get these transmissions under control.”

Information about where to get a free COVID-19 vaccine is available by calling 3-1-1.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.