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COVID-19 hospitalizations elevate in Jefferson County; official worries about “pandemic fatigue”

Jefferson County has seen an alarming spike in the percentage of coronavirus patients hospitalized.

According to data released by County Judge Jeff Branick on Monday, 24 percent of such patients are hospitalized, more than doubling the rate of 10 percent on Nov. 11. The 14-day average of 59.8 new cases is almost double the rate on Nov. 1 (34.4) with 132 new cases in the community reported through the weekend. Among those cases, 72 were reported by the four-city Port Arthur Health Department, including 44 in Port Arthur.

“The next three or four months dealing with these cases, as we’re seeing high numbers in hospitalization and ventilator uses, it will be very challenging to handle more cases,” said Dr. Praphul Joshi, Jefferson County’s COVID-19 analyst and director of the Southeast Texas Public Health Institute.

Public health experts place much of the blame for the rising numbers on the lack of practicing precautions such as staying at home whenever possible, social distancing and wearing masks over the nose and mouth.

Joshi termed the trend as “pandemic fatigue.”

“People are tired of hearing about this, and it’s been nine months we’ve been held to the confines of social distancing and mask wearing,” Joshi said. “We observe that everywhere. There are more gatherings happening at grocery stores. This spike has happened after Halloween, and I think people across the nation are gathering more often.”

While a similar spike happened during the summer, Joshi noted, health officials expect to see a surge in COVID-19 cases as flu cases rise.

“With the hospital capacity being close to maxed out, it’s a good idea for the community to do our part to mitigate the efforts,” Joshi said.

Joshi made those comments shortly after the Texas Association of Freestanding Emergency Centers filed a formal petition requesting the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and Department of State Health Services allow freestanding emergency centers to offer non-emergency care under their state licensure.

Kevin Herrington, the association’s board president, said freestanding emergency centers are under-utilized in the Texas response plan and can help fill gaps where critical access to care is needed most.

Public health officials from seven Southeast Texas counties including Jefferson will hold a joint press conference at 11 a.m. today (Nov. 18) on the front steps of the Jefferson County Courthouse in Beaumont.

Health directors from Port Arthur, Beaumont and each of the seven counties (Chambers, Hardin, Jasper, Jefferson, Newton, Orange and Tyler) will release a public service announcement encouraging people to celebrate Thanksgiving in a safe manner during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As we come up on the holidays, we do believe people are still going to have their family gatherings,” Port Arthur Health Department Director Judith Smith said. “Our hope is people will listen and hear what we’re saying. I’m almost at a loss for words. When you think things get better … listen, I get so many phone calls with so many different scenarios. I’m wondering why have people done this? How can this situation be when we kind of asked you not to avoid precautions? I realized people are really getting tired of wearing masks, staying home and all the different things since March, but we don’t have any alternatives right now.”

There is, however, the potential of two COVID-19 fighting vaccines to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Moderna on Monday announced its trial vaccine proved 94.5 percent effective, a higher rate than Pfizer and BioNTech claimed (90 percent) for its trial last week.

While a timeline for availability of the vaccines is hard to establish without FDA approval, Smith said public health workers will “be on the first line” of distributing the medicine.

“We will be part of the first group that gets the vaccine,” she said. “Other providers will have the ability to register and administer as well. We’ve got to get our healthcare workers and first responders taken care of first.”

The Port Arthur Health Department will set sites for administration of the vaccines when they become available, Smith said. If the public health community has anything to do with helping the vaccines become available sooner, she added, it would be done at a higher level.