The coronavirus is back in Bell County — and it’s back with a vengeance.
As of Thursday, active cases had risen to more than 900, and the region’s hospitalization rate was the second-highest in the state.
What is particularly disturbing is that the surge has occurred so quickly.
As of July 1, only about 3% of hospitalizations in the Killeen-Temple area were COVID-19 patients, according to figures reported by the Texas Tribune. By July 27, that number has soared to nearly 14%, and on Thursday, it edged close to 15%.
Bell County’s incidence rate is also rising at an alarming pace, hitting 251 cases per 100,000 residents on Thursday — the highest since mid-February.
As with other surges across the country, the aggressive and highly contagious delta variant is driving the rapid increase in cases.
To date, research has shown that the three major vaccines — those produced by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — provide high levels of protection against the variant, as well as the original form of the virus.
The problem is, not enough Bell County residents are getting the vaccines.
In fact, only 28% are fully vaccinated, which ranks Bell in the bottom third of all 254 counties in terms of residents who have received at least one shot, the Texas Tribune reports.
That number is far below the state average of 43.5%, as of Wednesday. It’s also well below the Travis County figure of 57%, among the highest in the state — but still well below the 75% health experts say would provide herd immunity.
The low COVID vaccination rates correlate directly with the high hospitalization rates, with the overwhelming majority of severe COVID cases afflicting unvaccinated people. Information from the Bell County Public Health District shows that more than 90% of COVID cases since mid-June have been unvaccinated people or those who are not fully vaccinated.
Moreover, state medical data shows that between Feb. 8 and July 14, 99.5% of the state’s COVID-related deaths were unvaccinated individuals.
No doubt, vaccination is the strongest defense against developing severe coronavirus symptoms.
And with a broad spectrum of healthcare providers, pharmacies and retail stores such as Walmart offering the vaccine for free, it’s more than a little surprising that so few Bell County residents have taken advantage of the vaccination initiative.
Certainly, the airwaves and internet have been part of the problem — spreading mixed messages and misinformation about the safety of the vaccines. As of July 22, Facebook reported it had deleted more than 18 million pieces of misinformation about COVID since early last year.
Even though some news outlets — most notably Fox News — have changed their tune on vaccination and are now actively encouraging viewers to get the shots, vaccine hesitancy continues to be a problem, both locally and nationwide.
No doubt, the FDA could go a long way toward easing concerns by giving the major coronavirus vaccines final approval. To date, they have been granted only emergency approval status.
Until now, people who didn’t want to get the shot had a reasonable expectation that the virus numbers would keep dropping, making it unnecessary for them to get vaccinated.
But with the delta variant taking hold in the area, the strategy to “ride it out” is no longer viable.
Perhaps the surge in COVID cases will encourage complacent local residents to be proactive and get vaccinated. For every resident who gets the shot, that’s one less host for the virus to infect.
Ultimately, a rising vaccination rate means a shorter duration for the pandemic’s surge, and a quicker return to a more normal lifestyle for all Central Texans.
For now, however, we must all go back to wearing masks indoors, especially in crowded or confined spaces.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week issued the new directive, which replaced its recommendation from May, when the CDC said all fully vaccinated adults could go without masks.
The reason for the change is simple: Even vaccinated people can become infected by the delta variant, though they may not have any symptoms. However, as carriers of the disease, they could still spread it to others.
Another reason is more basic. Even though the variant has shown a higher ability to evade antibodies as it seeks to infect individuals, it cannot defeat the physical barrier of a face mask.
With that in mind, a mask mandate would seem to make sense. After all, it was crucial in bringing the case numbers down during the initial surge last year.
However, Gov. Greg Abbott not only won’t issue a second statewide mask mandate; he has banned all governmental entities and school districts from mandating face masks as well.
That has the potential to be problematic as we approach the start of the school year in two weeks.
The issue is particularly vexing in the Killeen Independent School District, since some of the district’s schools are on Fort Hood.
Eight campuses will require masks this fall, since those schools are on federal land and fall under President Joe Biden’s recent mandate for federal facilities. However, on the district’s other campuses, masks will be strongly encouraged but not required, since the governor’s order prohibits such mandates.
Still, the district may face some serious obstacles to learning if the virus surges among the student population this fall — especially since the governor has rejected giving school districts the option of virtual learning, as they had last year.
As such, the first few weeks of class may be crucial in determining how the school year proceeds.
Considering how aggressive and highly transmissible the delta variant has proven to be, the degree to which our community is able to go back to mask wearing will play a large role in determining how severe this latest surge will be.
Certainly, masks are crucial in the fight to stop the spread of COVID, as are good hygiene and social distancing.
But the ultimate weapon — our best hope in winning the fight — is for a large majority of Central Texans to be fully vaccinated.
The sooner we all get our shots, the sooner the virus will recede — hopefully, for good.
Getting vaccinated just makes sense. The shots are free, the side effects are generally mild, and the vaccines have been proven to be overwhelmingly effective in preventing severe illness and death due to the coronavirus.
If you haven’t yet gotten your vaccine shots, consider doing it for your family, your friends, your coworkers and your community. But most of all, do it for yourself.
The virus has proven to be persistent, adaptable and resilient.
However, it can be defeated, and to reach that goal, we all must play a part in the outcome.
One mask, one shot at a time.