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The woman in the San Antonio intensive care bed was on a ventilator, her lungs ravaged by COVID-19. After the staff did all they could to help her beat the virus, there was nothing else to do but try to put her at ease as her life slipped away. .
“I’m sorry,” she kept telling Maria Manzanilla, the young intensive care nurse at her bedside at the university hospital.
Manzanilla, 27, asked why she was apologizing.
“She kept saying that she wished she had received the vaccine,” recalls Manzanilla.
About two weeks later, in August, the woman died. She was in her mid-forties.
She was among the more than 9,000 Texans who died from COVID-19 in August and September, nearly 40% of them under the age of 60, amid an alarming increase in reported daily deaths that threatens to surpass last summer’s deadly surge in weekly average numbers.
The dramatic and sudden increase in deaths – which has increased almost tenfold in two months this summer – comes despite tens of thousands of doses of the vaccine being given to Texans every day.
Experts say it is driven by the highly contagious delta variant of the virus which attacks the 14 million Texans who remain unvaccinated. About 96% of cases in Texas are the delta variant, state health officials said.
Since the first coronavirus-related death in Texas – March 15, 2020, in Matagorda County – 62,033 people have died from the virus statewide as of September 23. About half of these have occurred since vaccinations began in Texas in mid-December. .
Just over 50% of the population of Texas is fully vaccinated. Health officials say the high rate of unvaccinated people in the state contributed to an increase in hospitalizations last month, which preceded the spike in deaths that quickly followed.
Of the nearly 19,000 deaths in Texas attributed to COVID-19 since early February, 119 have been fully vaccinated according to preliminary data from the state’s health department.
Scientists are still trying to find out if the delta variant is deadlier than earlier versions of the virus, but it is known to be much more contagious, and some data suggests that it makes people much sicker, much faster than the versions. previous ones. COVID-19 vaccines are extremely effective in preventing serious illness or death, scientists say.
“We shouldn’t be surprised,” Dr. David Lakey, vice chancellor of health affairs, chief medical officer for the University of Texas System and a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force, told About the number of deaths. “The main reason the death rates are as high as they are is that there is a lot of COVID in a lot of people who have underlying conditions and are not immune.”
Delta brings age change in deaths
Manzanilla, who completed her nursing education just weeks before the start of the pandemic, said that after a year and a half on the frontline as an intensive care nurse, she noticed several big differences between the outbreak delta this summer and previous surges in January and summer of 2020.
“This is the wave where they are much sicker,” she said. “This is the wave we see them coming in and they die a lot faster. It’s pretty sad. And they are younger. Those who die are much younger than they were last summer.
The statistics provided by the State corroborate his observations. Compared to previous outbreaks, a greater proportion of deaths in the most recent outbreak are people under the age of 60, according to state figures.
The deadliest month of the pandemic to date was January – before vaccines were widely available – when 9,914 people died from COVID-19, state data showed. That month, only 15% of deaths from COVID-19 were among Texans under the age of 60. Last month, at the height of the delta’s surge, they accounted for 38% of deaths.
More Texans under the age of 60 died in August than at any time during the pandemic. Deaths of Texans in their 40s, for example, jumped to 679, nearly double the previous peak for this age group in January 2021. For Texans in their 30s, deaths in August were 33% higher than the winter peak, while deaths of the youngest over 30 – 124 in August – were 77% higher than the previous peak for this age group, which was 70 in July 2020.
Seniors are still dying in greater numbers, even though their vaccination rates have reached 98% in some areas and 79% of Texans aged 65 and over are fully vaccinated statewide. That’s because they’re even more vulnerable to the disease and much more likely to die from infection than their younger counterparts, said Spencer Fox, associate director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. .
While deaths in this age group also increased in August, they were well below their winter and summer highs.
Hospitalizations peaked in August statewide – nearly reaching the record high in January’s outbreak – and more hospitals have reported intensive care units at full or overcapacity than at any other time in the pandemic . Those numbers are starting to stabilize or decline, along with the positivity rate, which measures the percentage of COVID tests that are positive.
It’s an encouraging sign that the delta’s surge may finally peak, although it’s not a certainty, Fox said.
Millions of Texas students returned to school in person in August and September, many of them in districts without a mask warrant as Governor Greg Abbott battles with districts in high transmission areas on the authority they have to enforce behaviors that can help reduce infection rates.
Fox said he would expect a back-to-school bump to show up this fall, if there is one.
“Right now, we are forecasting an overall decline in the state over the next few weeks, which is a very promising trend,” Fox said. “We do not yet have enough data to understand the impact that school reopens could have on trends.”
Deaths are a leak indicator: they increase after the increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and then decrease after these indicators drop.
“We will have to be humble and cautious in looking at these numbers and not be surprised that the number of deaths increases for a while after we pass this peak in hospitalizations,” Lakey said.
“Angry and frustrated” by the new wave of COVID-19
Last summer, Manzanilla said she and her nursing colleagues were afraid of the new virus and were heartbroken for the patients whose deaths they had witnessed. Often times, nurses would sit with them so they wouldn’t die on their own while their devastated loved ones could only look through windows or smartphones due to visitation restrictions linked to COVID-19.
This summer, Manzanilla said, she is mostly feeling “angry and frustrated”. And conflictual.
“We started out being worried, but then we got angry,” she said. “These people weren’t dying before COVID, and now they’re coming in and getting this virus and they’re dying, and that’s something the community could have prevented.
“But at the same time, you feel compassion for the patient because… they’re still human beings,” she added. “They are still there. They are sick and we are here to take care of them.
Manzanilla said she, like others in her profession, is exhausted and considering a career change after the pandemic ends. Last year had too much grief, too much death. She decided she would like to become a nurse practitioner, working in a doctor’s office instead of being on the front lines of a tragedy.
“It’s a very heavy job,” she said of being an intensive care nurse. “I will be going back to school in a year. I don’t think I can stay at the bedside for long. I thought I could, but I don’t think I can.
Disclosure: The Texas Medical Association and the University of Texas System have financially supported The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, non-partisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial support plays no role in the journalism of the Tribune. Find a full list of them here.
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