Officials with Austin Public Health said in a Jan. 28 press conference the area has reached the peak of the COVID-19 omicron variant wave and case numbers are beginning to decline—a fact Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes characterized as “good news.”

“Our efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 have been effective and we are starting to see our case numbers go down,” Walkes said. “We are really encouraged by that and we need to redouble our efforts to do what we know to stop that spread with masking and vaccination.”

APH Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said the number of positive COVID-19 lab results reported to APH have decreased from more than 22,000 last week to 15,000 this week, a 31% decrease.

Walkes said APH expects a peak in intensive care unit admissions in the first weeks of February and a continued decline in hospitalization rates. On Jan. 25, Community Impact Newspaper reported hospitalizations in the Austin-Travis County area have begun to plateau.

APH officials said these downward trends will only continue if the community remains vigilant, especially as the BA2 variant spreads.

Pichette called the BA2 variant a “daughter lineage” of the omicron variant, stating it will be very similar to the original omicron variant—BA1.

With three detected cases in the Houston area, Pichette said the subvariant is likely circulating within the community. She said because BA2 is “extremely transmissible” there could be another increase in cases as that strain becomes the dominant variant in the area.

Still, Walkes said the vaccines that are available are working against the BA2 variant and it appears to produce mild disease.

“This new variant spreads more quickly and because of that, we’re going to see an impact on the general population appear more quickly,” Walkes said. “It’s going to find the vulnerable, and in this case, it’s going to find those who are unvaccinated or unable to be vaccinated, particularly those who are under the age of 5 and the elderly.”

Dr. Sarmistha Hauger, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Dell Children’s Medical Center and associate professor at Dell Medical School, joined APH officials for the press conference to talk about the uptick in children being hospitalized with COVID-19. Walkes said 91% of the pediatric cases of COVID-19 admitted to local hospitals are among unvaccinated children.

Hauger said since the beginning of the pandemic 9 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, with 900,000 of these positive tests coming since the beginning of January. Furthermore, she said the number of pediatric cases requiring hospitalization has increased so that, nationwide, children account for 2.9% of COVID-19 hospitalizations—an increase she said they have felt at Dell Children’s.

To date, Hauger said Dell Children’s has cared for 300 children who have been admitted for and experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. Additionally, she said the number of pediatric hospital admissions that have occurred since January have exceeded those seen last summer with the delta variant, and that more younger children—as well as children who are unvaccinated—are being admitted to the hospital.

“Almost 37% or so of our children that are admitted since January have fallen into that younger age group—0-4. This is a big change for us seeing that with the previous surges, with first alpha and then delta, were mostly teenagers that were above the age 12,” Hauger said.

With household transmission near 100%—meaning that if one person is infected within a household, others will be as well—Cassandra DeLeon, APH chief administrative officer for disease prevention and health promotion, stressed the importance of vaccinating the 80,000 children age 5-15 who have not received a first dose.

“That’s really important because they do go to a space every day where there are other folks in schools and that makes them more vulnerable and then also makes anyone in that household they come back to [more vulnerable],” DeLeon said.

COVID-19 vaccines are free, do not require insurance and DeLeon said APH will not ask for identification at one of its vaccination locations.