With less than half of Texans vaccinated and the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreading, the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive in the state has climbed to a rate unseen since winter.
As of this weekend, Texas’ positivity rate is over 10% — a level that Gov. Greg Abbott and the Trump administration had identified as a red flag earlier in the pandemic. Meanwhile, daily confirmed new case totals and hospitalizations are climbing fast, but are far below their winter peaks.
On Saturday, the seven-day average for new confirmed cases in the state was 2,119. That’s nearly triple the average on the first day of the month, when it was 757. Meanwhile, the number of people hospitalized for the coronavirus in the state climbed from 1,591 on July 1 to 2,834 on Friday.
More than 14,200 people with COVID-19 were hospitalized on Jan. 11 — the highest number of pandemic hospitalizations in Texas so far.
But the positivity rate stands out among the rising numbers because experts view it as a leading indicator.
“The early signs are similar. They are all right there,” said Benjamin Neuman, a virologist and professor at Texas A&M University. “Epidemiologists read test positivity stats like the low tide, and it looks as though we are in for a big wave.”
In the last seven days, about 144,000 molecular tests, such as nasal or throat swab tests, were administered in Texas, and 10.2% of those came back positive, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The last time the state’s positivity rate was above 10% was in February, and the rate hit an all-time low of 2.8% in mid-June.
The positivity rate does not clearly measure how prevalent the virus is spreading across the state since it depends on the number of administered tests, Neuman said, but “what it indicates is that we are missing a lot of cases.”
“Ten percent of the state is not infected right now,” he continued. “But 10% of the people with the sniffles have COVID, which means we are at the start of something like another wave. We have seen the numbers in the rest of the U.S. go up and Texas has been a little bit behind, but it looks as though we may be catching up fast.”
This comes as the highly contagious delta variant has become the most prevalent version of COVID-19 in the country, which — along with relaxed preventive precautions — Neuman lists as a reason for the rise of the positivity rate.
“This is an indication of how far behind we are from ending this,” he said. “It’s an indication of how far ahead the virus is in this race, compared to what our understanding of what the virus is doing. The virus is running laps around us out there right now.”