What a difference a few months make.
Going into Labor Day weekend, Killeen-area residents were bracing for a potential spike in cases of the coronavirus, and already the numbers weren’t looking good.
On Sept. 3, Bell County public health officials were reporting a seven-day average of 136 COVID cases, 238 hospitalizations and an incidence rate of 629.88 per 100,000 population.
But things have certainly changed over the last 11 weeks.
As of Friday, the county was reporting a seven-day average of 11 cases, with only 18 new cases. The incidence rate was down to 62.27 per 100,000, and only 29 hospitalizations were reported.
The outlook has improved for the Killeen Independent School District as well.
On Sept. 3, the district was reporting 400 cases of COVID district-wide, up from 219 cases just a week earlier. While that may not seem bad, considering the district has 44,000 students and 6,000 staff, the trend was troubling. Also troubling was the fact that all but one of the district’s 51 campuses were reporting at least one COVID case, and two campuses had more than 30 cases each.
Fast-forward to Friday, and things had taken a decided turn for the better.
Just 21 active cases were reported on the district’s COVID dashboard Friday, with only two total at the high school level. Contrast that with the Sept. 3 numbers, when Killeen High School had 38 cases, the highest of any single campus in KISD, and it’s apparent that the numbers have been moving in the right direction.
What are some of the reasons for the encouraging trend?
For one, more people have been getting vaccinated over the last few months, giving the virus fewer targets for infection. As of Friday, the county’s vaccination rate was listed as 41.53%. That’s still well below the national total of 59.1%, as reported in The Washington Post on Friday. The statewide number stood at 54.3%, as of Friday.
Still, the local vaccination rate continues to increase, and now children ages 5-11 are eligible for vaccinations as well. Since that Oct. 29 announcement by the federal government, KISD has partnered with the city of Killeen to provide vaccines to this younger demographic, and the school district reported that 261 children age 11 and under had received Pfizer vaccines on the first day they were offered at a Killeen vaccine clinic.
Also, most area residents are continuing to exercise caution regarding the virus, wearing masks in crowded indoor settings, practicing good hygiene and maintaining social distancing when necessary — even those who are fully vaccinated.
Combined with what may be a natural decline in the virus’ spread at this stage in the pandemic, the case numbers continue to fall — much to everyone’s relief.
However, that doesn’t mean another spike isn’t on the horizon.
With all the holiday travel and large gatherings expected over the next month, it’s possible that case numbers may swing back in the wrong direction.
It’s also possible that yet another variant, such as the newly discovered omicron variant, may arrive in our community at some point. That aggressive strain could be more resistant to the current vaccines or might be able to spread more rapidly, as was the case with the delta variant that most recently swept the nation.
The bottom line is that we can’t afford to let our guard down. Just because the risk of infection may be lower right now doesn’t mean the coronavirus no longer poses a threat.
However, there are already signs that around our community that the risk is being minimized.
In many stores, the floor markings reminding customers to maintain six feet of social distance have been removed. The same is the case with many of the plastic partitions that have separated employees from customers at the checkout counter. In other locations, the signs on the doors urging customers to wear masks are no longer displayed.
In most local restaurants, patrons are now seated in close proximity once again, and there are no longer any restrictions on the number of diners who can be seated at one table.
Fortunately, in some retail outlets, employees still wear masks, and hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes are common in a majority of restaurants and stores.
It’s important that we continue the safe practices that have gotten us to this point.
Wearing masks when appropriate, social distancing and conscientious hand sanitizing are all good-sense measures that not only will protect us and others from the coronavirus, but will also minimize the risk of transmitting or catching colds and flu during the upcoming winter months.
The same measures that have brought the numbers down in the community at-large should remain in place in our schools as well. Short of a mask mandate — which is still a desirable step to curb the spread of COVID — local school districts must continue to encourage the wearing of masks by students and staff, maintain social-distancing policies, closely monitor those who exhibit symptoms and follow current protocols for those who test positive for the virus.
These are all minor inconveniences, especially given the dire outlook our community faced at this time last year — when cases and hospitalizations were soaring and there was no vaccine available.
Last year at this time, holiday gatherings were discouraged, and many residents spent Thanksgiving and Christmas separated from loved ones — largely out of concern of catching or transmitting the potentially fatal disease.
Last fall, many KISD students were learning virtually, with parents fearing that their child would become infected with the virus if they attended school in a classroom setting.
The resulting stress on parents, students and teachers trying to adapt to a new learning platform made the holiday season even more uncertain.
Thankfully, those scenarios from last year have faded. But the best way to ensure we don’t have to relive those difficult days is to do all that we can to defeat the virus still lurking in our community.
Most importantly, that means getting vaccinated. It also means getting a booster shot, for those who are eligible for one.
The other things we can do — masking, social distancing and hand washing — are important, too. Practicing those public health protocols give us the best chance of keeping ourselves and our families safe.
But more importantly, making these small sacrifices demonstrates that we are also concerned about the well-being of others in our community.
And isn’t that what this time of year is all about?