Houston hospitals are seeing an incoming “fourth wave” of COVID-19 as the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreads across the region, hospital leaders said Tuesday.
Leaders at the Texas Medical Center are raising concerns over the threat the delta variant will pose in Greater Houston, after the group of hospitals — which has been tracking COVID-19 data for more than a year — saw the number of hospitalizations rise over the past few weeks. The recent trend comes after months of a downward progression of COVID-19 cases since since January.
At Houston Methodist Hospital, COVID-19 patients have nearly doubled in the past week alone. Meanwhile, the Memorial Hermann Health System modified its visitor policy on Tuesday in response to “the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the Greater Houston area.”
“We are clearly seeing the beginning of the fourth wave of this pandemic, which is alarming at best,” said Bill McKeon, CEO of the Texas Medical Center.
This week, Houston Methodist also reported its first case of the Lambda variant, which was first identified in Peru. The World Health Organization has classified the strain as a variant of interest, as more research emerges on the transmissibility of this version of the coronavirus.
The vast majority of COVID-19 hospital patients are now unvaccinated — a trend that hospitals both locally and nationally are following. Breakthrough cases, or infections among fully vaccinated individuals, make up less than 1% of deaths nationwide.
Peter Hotez, a vaccine and infectious disease expert at Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine, said the coming wave is going to disproportionately affect unvaccinated individuals and regions of the country, such as rural parts of East Texas and the panhandle. Cities like Houston, with higher vaccination rates, will fare better.
“Just like we’re seeing two COVID nations, we’re also seeing two aspects of Texas,” Hotez said. “Along the border with Mexico, vaccination rates look pretty good. Same with some of the big urban areas, including Houston, we’re doing relatively okay.”
But the half of Houstonians who remain unvaccinated are still a cause for concern, according to Dr. Paul Klotman, the president of Baylor College of Medicine — especially because monoclonal antibody treatments are not proving effective against the delta variant.
The delta variant may force public health agencies to amend their guidance on COVID-19 precautions, such as mask wearing in public, said both Klotman and Hotez. They recommended wearing a mask while indoors when the vaccination status of others is unknown or in areas of high transmission.
On Sunday, Los Angeles County became one of the first places to reinstate a mask mandate due to the increase of coronavirus cases. Hotez added that current guidance from the CDC is based on the alpha variant — which was the most dominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S. before delta surpassed it earlier this month.
“If it’s true that delta is being shed in so much more abundance by both unvaccinated and even vaccinated individuals, we may have to think about revisiting that.”
However, all three authorized vaccines in the United States — Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — “are effective at neutralizing the virus,” Klotman added.
Hospital officials do not anticipate the coming wave to overwhelm hospitals, like many feared during last year’s summer surge. The modeling they’re relying on indicates the wave won’t hit Texas nearly as hard as previous waves.
“What we will see is a hill, not a mountain,” Klotman said. “We saw three very big peaks in the past, and I think this one will be more of a prolonged slow rise. It’ll peak at much less than the peaks we’ve had before.”