FILE - Youngstown City Health Department worker Faith Terreri grabs two at-home COVID-19 test kits to be handed out during a distribution event, Dec. 30, 2021, in Youngstown, Ohio. Nearly half the 500 million free COVID-19 tests the Biden administration recently made available to Americans still have not been claimed as virus cases plummet and people feel less urgency to test. (AP Photo/David Dermer, File)

The number of COVID-19 patients in Harris County hospitals continues to increase since the holidays. 

According to the Houston Health Department, more than 15% of Covid tests are coming back positive, and the amount of virus in the city’s wastewater is 917% above the baseline level set back in 2020. That means the virus is spreading fast. 

But health officials don’t believe that the current strain is more deadly than previous strains. 

Dr. Janeana White is with the Houston Health Department and said the new omicron variant, XBB1.5, is a major reason for the surge. But there are other reasons for the increase in cases. 

“While it’s very transmissible, it’s not creating severe illness, which is a good thing,” White said. 

Health officials have also pointed to waning vaccine immunity in the community as a reason for the surge. 

David Persse is Chief Medical Officer with the city of Houston. He said the current vaccine was not designed for the new variants, and are not doing as good of a job of preventing infections.

“But they seem to be doing a pretty good job of preventing hospitalizations,” he said. “And that’s important because at the end of the day we want to make sure nobody dies from the infections. We also want to make sure that people who have other health problems have a hospital bed to go to when they need it.”

He said the region is the in the upswing of a Covid wave, which is no surprise to him. According to data from the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council (SETRAC), as of last Thursday, the rolling weekly average is 40 cases per 100,000 Harris County residents. That’s up from 27 per 100,000 Harris County residents the week before.

“We tend to follow the northeast and they’re having an increase,” he said. “The wastewater that’s our earliest predictor of what’s about to happen in hospitals. Hospitalizations are up. Numbers are nowhere near as high as they were in the past, but things are moving in an upward direction.”

Persse said there’s more herd immunity and the new variant continues to be a challenge, but there’s also a fatigue of precautions. 

“People are tired of wearing the masks, and they’re tired of the precautions we take, and that’s absolutely understandable,” Persse said. “I worry most about people who are at higher risk having bad outcomes.” 

Those groups include older people, people with cancer, or organ transplant patients, and very young children, such as newborns. 

“I still see a fair amount of people – not a lot – still wearing masks,” he said. “So the message is not totally lost.”