As the omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly, a real-time snapshot of how the virus is impacting Texans may be muddled over the next couple of weeks thanks to a lag in state data and soaring demand for at-home tests.
The Texas Department of State Health Services, which tracks the number of coronavirus vaccinations, cases, hospitalizations and deaths across the state, won’t be updating its daily dashboard Friday through Sunday both this week and next over the holidays.
The agency, which delayed reporting daily data over the Thanksgiving holiday in November, told The Texas Tribune it plans to backfill that data the following Monday in both cases.
Those information lapses come at an inopportune time: Texas has again started to see a rapid increase in the number of coronavirus infections.
According to state data, the seven-day average for the number of confirmed cases has doubled over the past week. And while COVID-19 hospitalizations have remained relatively low in most of the state so far, the number of hospitals reporting full intensive care units has started to rise again after dropping since August.
A DSHS spokesperson said Wednesday that the agency is taking the break to give its staff a chance to enjoy the holiday season.
“Frankly, it’s just a matter of wanting to give our staff, who have been working all the time for the last nearly two years, a chance to spend the holidays with their family without having to be chasing down numbers,” said Chris Van Deusen.
Still, some health experts say that time off is coming at a crucial time.
“Crunch time is now — Christmas Eve, Christmas Day — and it’s going to be a very bad time as omicron starts to rev up,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. “It just puts more of a burden on the local health departments to manage that situation.”
Another potential blind spot in the state data is the surge of at-home tests, which drug stores like CVS and Walgreens have reported are widely out of stock or in short supply nationwide for months. Those tests aren’t automatically reported to the state, which could affect the state’s understanding of how many Texans are testing positive for the virus.
“I imagine most people don’t even know who to report it to, which would be your local health department,” said Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. “Anybody can report infectious diseases to their local health department or DSHS. But we know that even for health care providers, reporting isn’t 100%. I think it’s a lot to expect the public to do it.”
Van Deusen though said he’s not worried that at-home testing “is going to kind of leave us blind in any way” and pointed to the large amount of testing that is getting reported back to the state.
“If you look at the level of testing that is occurring, just looking at the last week, we have gotten an average of 100,000 each day for the last seven days. That is, by far, enough to give us a picture of what’s happening with the pandemic in Texas,” he said. “When you take a look at the cases, combined with the positivity rate, it gives us a real good indication of what’s going on. We’re seeing cases go up a lot. We’re seeing the positivity rate go up a lot.”
Dr. Bhavna Lall, an internal medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at the University of Houston’s College of Medicine, said that while sometimes patients will let their health care providers know about a positive at-home test, there should be a system in place for doctors to better inform public health authorities about it.
As far as the number of hospitalizations related to COVID-19, Van Deusen said that data is typically more consistent over the holidays because it’s data that’s not reliant on people getting tested.
“Hospitals do report every day and will continue to report every day. We will have daily totals from them,” he said. “Hospitals are very much 24/7 operations. We still expect that reporting will occur, and we will be able to share that data for the weekend as well.”
Health officials emphasized the precautions people should take as omicron surges and families and friends prepare to gather for the holidays.
“It’s really important that people do the measures we already know work — getting vaccinated, getting their boosters if eligible, wearing masks indoors, testing before gathering, and practicing physical and social distancing,” Lall said Wednesday. “We have the tools that we know work, so we want to make sure people use them right now.”