AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – With recent news about the COVID-19 omicron variant beginning to spread across the world, and holiday festivities already underway as the end of 2021 approaches, the City of Amarillo briefed the community on the state of the pandemic at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

Booster shots of the COVID-19 vaccines have been widely recommended for all eligible people, and the Amarillo Public Health Department has continued to stand among the facilities offering vaccination to most people over five years of age.

Throughout the briefing, local health leaders were seriously concerned by the “exponentially” rising COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations in the last few weeks. All expressed deep anxiety about staffing and space in local hospitals for all people in need of care, even outside of COVID-19. With such an increase so quickly in cases, even before the full impact of Thanksgiving gatherings have been seen and with Christmas around the corner, health leaders were “dismayed” and anticipating a worsening struggle in the coming weeks.

Amarillo Public Health Authority Dr. Todd Bell opened the meeting with comments on the current state of COVID-19 cases in the Amarillo area, as well as addressing concerns regarding the recently reported omicron variant.

The latest COVID-19 case numbers from the Amarillo community reported 535 new cases Tuesday, as well as two deaths and 41 recoveries. The over-500 number, said Bell, was in part caused by the Amarillo Public Health Department working to catch up on case numbers that accumulated over the Thanksgiving holiday. However the fidgeting and post-holiday catch-up did not discredit the fact that COVID-19 hospitalizations and case numbers have seen an average increase in the area in recent weeks.

“We just don’t have enough information,” Bell commented on the omicron variant, which was reported first by South African scientists over the holiday. Who is most likely to be infected by the omicron variant and its interactions with vaccinated or pre-infected populations has yet to be seen. However, Bell insisted that measures that have proven effective against respiratory infections generally remain effective; mask wearing, hand-washing, and social distancing when possible.

Another comment on the variant Bell offered was that there is at least some certain benefit in being vaccinated against COVID-19. He encouraged everyone who has not been vaccinated to be so if possible, and for all who have been vaccinated to receive a booster if they have not. All local health leaders continued to agree that data has been clear in showing that those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 are extremely less likely to suffer severe effects from the virus and be hospitalized, or die, from infection.

Northwest Texas Healthcare System’s (NWTH) Dr. Brian Weis continued to echo the encouragement for vaccination, both for COVID-19 and influenza. He reported to be, “a bit dismayed” watching the increase in hospitalizations from COVID-19 in the area.

Despite the fact NWTH reported half as many COVID-19 patients hospitalized compared to this time in 2020, 55 compared to a previous 110, that 55 number was still double the amount of patients than the facility saw in the last month. 21 of those 55 patients were reported by Weis to be in the ICU, with 13 of those on a ventilator.

Every ICU COVID-19 patient except for two, he noted, were not vaccinated. The 16 deaths from COVID-19 in the hospital in November, said Weis, could have likely been avoided with vaccination.

Aside from only COVID-19 patients, Weis also noted NWTH seeing “some of the highest volume ever” in the ER for respiratory patients, including adults with RSV and influenza A. 17 regional patients with any ailment at all were waiting on space in the hospital, as the “concerning” numbers and “major” staff challenges have continued to significantly strain the healthcare system’s ability to help those in need.

BSA Healthcare System’s Dr. Michael Lamanteer agreed with other healthcare leaders in being “very concerned” about the state of COVID-19 in the community.

BSA reported 96 COVID-19 patients hospitalized during the briefing, with 31 of those numbers in the ICU and 20 on ventilators. Among that number, Lamanteer noted, were children and at least one patient in the labor and delivery ward. 18 people were waiting on hold for space in the hospital’s ER.

The amount was noted as generally “one of our highest censuses” in quite some time, and Lamanteer said BSA staff have been working through the “very difficult time” to proactively preserve beds and resources for patients.

The COVID-19 case numbers were climbing even before Thanksgiving, noted Lamanteer, as he remembered December 2020 in which BSA reported 188 COVID-19 patients, and a peak during the winter of around 204. The “unbelievable suffering,” he said, was a critical strain on patients, families, and staff altogether.

Even without the peak numbers of COVID-19 patients, Lamanteer noted that local hospitals have been experiencing a similar amount of difficulty to winter of 2020, as the amount of RAC nurses has significantly decreased. Despite many RAC nurses remaining on-hand and their exit from local hospitals being paused, and BSA taking on travel nurses when able to do so, staffing has remained a critical difficulty as health professionals work to cope with the pandemic and care for patients.

With concerns only growing at the speed with which COVID-19 cases have risen in the last weeks, Lamanteer once again pleaded with the community to get vaccinated against the virus and also receive a booster shot.

The Amarillo VA’s Dr. Rodney Gonzalez reported that, “we have been full,” and even seeing holds in the VA hospital’s ER during the recent spike in cases. Eight COVID-19 patients were reported to be in the VA hospital, four in the ICU.

Gonzalez continued on to remind the community that the Amarillo VA has remained steady in offering Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines, as well as booster shots.