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After more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Burnet County Local Health Authority Dr. Jules Madrigal sees hope on the horizon as the situation improves — sooner than expected.

“Things are getting better faster than we thought,” she said. “We really didn’t expect the general population to begin getting vaccinated until this summer, or even later.”

But on Monday, March 29, the Texas Department of State Health Services is opening COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to every person 16 and older. (Only the Pfizer vaccine is approved for 16- and 17-year-olds; the other two vaccines are for ages 18 and older). 

Previously, the state allowed vaccinations of those ages 50 and older as well as ages 16 and older with underlying medical conditions, healthcare workers, first responders, and longtime care facility staff and residents.

Vaccinations have played a role in the downward trend of new confirmed COVID-19 cases, something reflected in both Llano and Burnet counties. According to DSHS numbers, Burnet County has had about 4,000 confirmed cases as of Thursday, March 25. Llano County has had almost 2,000 confirmed cases.

However, health officials are anticipating a spike in the next couple of weeks due to Spring Break and then another one after Easter weekend, April 2-4, which Madrigal said is usual following a holiday. Spikes happened after Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

But things have changed since those two holidays. Three COVID-19 vaccines have been approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Since mid-December, providers have administered more than 9 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines. More than 3 million Texans are fully vaccinated, according to the DSHS, and thousands more are vaccinated every day.

In Burnet County, a little more than 4,700 people are fully vaccinated; in Llano County, 2,300; and in Blanco County, 1,440, according to DSHS numbers.

With that many people vaccinated, Madrigal said the Spring Break and Easter spikes should be lower compared to previous holidays.

“It should get even easier for people to get out, and we should begin feeling more comfortable being together,” she said.

Llano County Local Health Authority Dr. Jack Franklin noted the the decrease in new cases in his county over the past several months is most likely due to a couple of factors, not just the vaccine rollout, although vaccinations are ramping up in Llano County. On Thursday, March 25, providers administered more than 1,500 vaccinations in the county, including during a Texas Department of Emergency Management clinic in Kingsland. 

Also affecting the decrease in cases could be that those who have contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus now have at least a limited immunity. And while the February winter storm caused a number of headaches, it also served as a one-week quarantine, Franklin added. 

But now is not the time to throw out safety protocols, warn local, state, and federal health officials. Social distancing, washing hands frequently, avoiding crowds, and wearing face coverings still help slow the spread of the virus, which has not gone away. 

Madrigal understands the disdain people have for face coverings. She has been accused of never wanting to get rid of them. Absolutely not true, she said, adding that she looks forward to the day when masks won’t be needed at all as people go about their lives.

“Things are going to get better, sooner than we probably ever thought,” Madrigal said. “We’re getting there. We can see the finish line, but we have to remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. I’m very optimistic things will be changing. If there’s one piece of advice I could offer, it would be stay optimistic, stay hopeful, and let go of any anger. We’re so close. Just hold onto that hope and optimism.”

daniel@thepicayune.com