Keith Barber, the CEO of Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital, said that by this time, the levels of active coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Harris County was about twice that of the first surge in April but still about half as bad as the largest surge of the year around July.
“I think the reason we’re not back to the trends we were in July is because of our community taking the precautions that we have of wearing masks and social distancing,” he said. “So, certainly, it’s challenging today, but it’s not nearly as challenging as it was back in July.”
Even though case counts have risen during the holiday season, Barber said he anticipates COVID-19 levels in the hospital will stay manageable in the new year and begin to decline once the vaccine becomes more widely distributed.
Dr. Ian Glass, the hospital’s chief quality officer, said distribution to the general public is based on a tiered system. This starts with the highest-risk patients, such as nursing home residents and those over age 60 who have cancer, heart disease, diabetes or other medical conditions. Younger, healthier individuals will be the last to receive the vaccine, he said.
Harris County residents should, however, stay vigilant and take precautions even after they receive the vaccine, he said.
“For the next six months, we need people to focus on getting vaccinated and then continuing with the precautions of wearing their mask and social distancing and good hand hygiene,” Barber said.
Glass said the measures public health officials have encouraged throughout the pandemic have not only helped to curb the spread of COVID-19 but have significantly diminished the incidence of cases of influenza, strep throat and other viruses locally.
More than 1,000 Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital employees received the vaccine during the first week of distribution, and Barber said officials have continued to innovate to make screening, personal protective equipment usage and contact tracing more efficient since the start of the pandemic.
As more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine become available for patients of the Houston Methodist system, Barber said they will be able to schedule an appointment online. Recipients will be monitored for reactions for 15 minutes after the vaccine and be able to schedule their second dose either 21 or 28 days later at this initial appointment.
Individuals will be able to get vaccinated at Walgreens and CVS pharmacies as early as January, Glass said.
Side effects may include fever, a sore arm, fatigue and, in rare cases, allergic reactions. However, Glass said these effects are typical of any vaccine.
In fact, one of the most common misconceptions about the vaccine is that it contains an attenuated virus, or a weakened version of COVID-19 intended to created immunity, he said. Measles, mumps, rubella, influenza and other viral vaccines do contain attenuated viruses; instead, the COVID-19 vaccine contains a small piece of protein called RNA.
“[RNA] is the software, so to speak, of viral replication, and that little tiny bit of that software codes for that spike protein ... that attaches to your cells to cause the virus to be infectious to us and make us sick,” Glass said.
In addition to creating antibodies for this protein that causes the virus, the vaccine also stimulates immune systems to kill the virus as soon as contact is made, he said.
Glass said he estimates about 75% of the population will need to be vaccinated for herd immunity to be achieved and for the spread of the virus to be kept under control. Continued precautions will be necessary as some aspects of the virus are still being studied, such as whether someone who has been immunized can still carry the virus, he said.
“These vaccines are the safest vaccines that have ever been developed because they are not any part of a complete virus in any way,” Glass said. “We want to encourage as many people as possible to get vaccinated. It will make all of this horrible tragedy go away very quickly.”