AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas state health officials reported 450 new COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday as fatalities rapidly mount after a recent surge in hospitalizations.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has touted expanded vaccination efforts, but the rising death toll — 2,200 over the past seven days — and high numbers of seriously ill patients prompted a social media warning from state health officials that hospitals are struggling.
“Texas must avoid an additional surge in cases. Hospitals can’t take much more. Fatalities are still increasing,” the Department of State Health Services tweeted on its official account.
Texas had seen a peak of just under 11,000 hospitalizations during the summer virus peak in July. After falling to around 3,200 in September, the state has seen hospitals hit by a winter surge of new cases, patients and deaths. Texas hit a record high of 14,218 hospitalized COVID patients on Jan. 12 and has hovered above 13,700 since then.
Abbott, a Republican, has said Texas won’t go through another lockdown. Instead he has focused on vaccination efforts as the state has shifted most of its doses from smaller providers to large hubs that can serve thousands of patients a day.
The state is making vaccines available to any doctor or nurse in close contact with COVID-19 patients, other health care workers, and Texans 65 or older or anyone with a major health condition such as cancer, diabetes or kidney disease.
Texas officials report that about 1.2 million people have received the first dose of the vaccine and that about 185,000 are fully vaccinated. Abbott has urged the federal government to send more doses as quickly as it can.
Dallas County commissioners decided Tuesday that its mass vaccination site at Fair Park should prioritize residents in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods after early data showed many shots were going to people in affluent white neighborhoods.
The site was focused on vaccinating residents 75 and older. Commissioners decided to focus on vaccinating anyone meeting the state’s broader criteria as long as they live in one of 11 zip codes with longstanding health inequities or where residents are more likely to catch the virus.
The move though has drawn the ire of state health officials, with the Texas Department of State Health Services saying in a letter Wednesday that change could mean Dallas County gets fewer vaccines and is no longer considered a hub provider.
“While we ask hub providers to ensure the vaccine reaches the hardest hit areas and populations, solely vaccinating people who live in those areas is not in line with the agreement to be a hub provider,” wrote Imelda Garcia, associate commissioner for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
The county commissioners scheduled a Wednesday evening emergency session after the letter was sent.
Dr. Philip Huang, the county’s health director, had defended to the commissioners the county’s decision to initially only vaccinate those 75 and older. He also said the zip codes the commissioners decided this week to focus on were already being oversampled by the county in its most recent invitations.
“I want to vaccinate everyone, but we have to make some decisions,” Huang told the commissioners. “And we want to make the biggest impacts.”
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins had abstained from voting Tuesday, saying he was concerned the order would cut off vaccine access to vulnerable populations not living in those zip codes.
“Getting it to the people who are most likely to end up in ICU should be our goal right now,” Jenkins said.