AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – With the school year now underway and COVID-19 case numbers continuing to rise, the City of Amarillo briefed the community on the state of the pandemic at 11 a.m.

The Alert Status Level for Amarillo has been settled at level ‘Red’ since Aug. 11, amid a steep rise in cases and hospitalizations due to the virus that has led to dangerous stress on the healthcare system. Daily reports of new COVID-19 cases around the High Plains have continued.

In the last few weeks the Amarillo Public Health Department has also begun a weekly report to clarify hospitalizations and vaccination rates of the critically ill, after public request. Further, with the start of the school year, has been tracking the Texas Department of State Health Services’ reports of COVID-19 among students and staff members across the state. Both of these reports update each Friday.

Community health leaders continued to encourage vaccination, as well as masking, hand-washing, and social distancing practices in order to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and its variants.

Amarillo Public Health Director Casie Stoughton reported that 97.5% of total new cases of COVID-19 have been of the Delta variant. The city has continued its efforts to make COVID-19 vaccines available, as well as antibody treatments. COVID-19 vaccine booster shots are expected to be made available to the general public sometime in late September, but those who currently qualify for booster shots were roundly encouraged to get them.

Northwest Texas Healthcare System’s (NWTHS) Dr. Brian Weis discussed increasing concern about co-infection in children, possibly becoming ill with both COVID-19 and RSV at the same time as the unseasonable and high rates of RSV continue. Dr. Weis insisted that the community must do everything possible to protect young children from these possibly very dangerous conditions.

In NWTHS, Weis reported that 100% of the 55 currently hospitalized COVID-19 patients were infected with the Delta variant. 32 of those patients were reported to be in the ICU. 51 out of those patients were reported to not be vaccinated. The hospital also reported 16 deaths from COVID-19 over the course of August.

The BSA Healthcare System’s Dr. Michael Lamanteer reported 78 COVID-19 patients hospitalized, with most under the age of 60, and around 91% of those patients not vaccinated. BSA reported 31 deaths from COVID-19 over the month of August.

Health officials also reported that around 38 patients from the more broad region of the High Plains were waiting on beds in Amarillo hospitals, 23 of which need ICU beds, and 15 of which were COVID-19 patients. Dr. Lamanteer described it as the local hospitals being “in a very difficult situation” for not having the staffing and resources required to care for many waiting patients. Even outside of the realm of COVID-19 diagnoses, Lamanteer warned that the stress on the healthcare system is wide-reaching and could continue to impact many.

While both BSA and NWTHS reported to have received 17 RAC nurses from state resources over the last few weeks, local staffing and supply resources were still described as systematically overwhelmed. With morale desperately low and the pandemic continuing on, Weis and Lamanteer described a “large exodus of nurses” over the last year. Between leaving the profession entirely, or generally being unable to provide the unsustainable hours clocked in during the past year, health officials said that even “if COVID disappeared tomorrow” it would take years to regain staffing and student numbers to a pre-COVID-19 level. This stress was paired with the report that significant numbers of staff in local hospitals have needed to quarantine after exposure to the virus, once again keeping staff numbers stretched dangerously thin.

Amarillo Public Health Authority Dr. Todd Bell also spoke on COVID-19 treatments alongside other health leaders. While there have been a few newer treatments that seem promising, it was commonly agreed upon that monoclonal antibody treatments have taken a place among the most effective responses to COVID-19 aside from and along with vaccination.

However, health officials warned about supposed solutions such as Ivermectin. Those self-medicating with the drug, produced for animals, were advised to stop and consult a doctor. Doctors prescribing Ivermectin were advised, “we’ve got other things with better data” with which to respond to the virus. Lamanteer commented on the “ridiculous” and perhaps ironic faith that some claim towards Ivermectin, while being skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines with their broad sets of data.

The Amarillo public health leaders remained steady in encouraging communication with medical professionals, COVID-19 vaccination, hygiene, masking, and social distancing as the pandemic continues.