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COVID-19 cases in the Highland Lakes are on the rise this summer after falling in the spring to a point where many began to relax into a post-pandemic mindset. It might be too soon to let down your mask, however, according to Dr. Jack Franklin, the Llano County local health authority. The latest Omicron sub-variant (BA.5) is hitting the Hill Country.

“We have seen a fairly steep increase in the number of people being tested for COVID-19 and in the percentage of those tests coming back positive in the past two weeks,” Franklin said. “Current positivity rates are at approximately 30 percent, but this changes on a daily basis.”

In Burnet County, the number of confirmed positive cases increased in late June and early July. Thirty new cases were reported on July 2. Prior to that, the numbers fluctuated between 10 and 25 new cases a day. 

Llano County numbers reflect a similar pattern. Positive cases hit 12 on July 2; numbers for the previous four days moved up and down from 12 to three. 

Both counties showed a decrease from July 3-5.

But following the July 4 weekend, the Texas Department of State Health Services anticipates cases will climb across the state. The good news is that fewer cases are severe and fatalities have dropped despite the uptick in infections. 

“This variant does seem to be less severe than previous variants in that we are not seeing as many hospitalizations,” Franklin said.

Currently, three COVID-19 Omicron variants make up the bulk of cases, according to DSHS and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, BA.5 makes up 47.2 percent of cases reported June 19-25 and BA.2.12.1 accounted for 33.4 percent during the same timeframe. The third variant, BA.4, made up 14.4 percent during those seven days.

A key component of keeping tabs on COVID-19 and slowing the virus’ spread is getting tested and taking steps to prevent infecting others.

However, Franklin pointed out, testing comes with challenges.

“The biggest change from my perspective has been the massive increase in home testing kits,” he said. “This certainly helped reduce the burden on testing centers but makes it more difficult to track cases from a public health standpoint.”

State and federal health officials continue to emphasize the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations. Currently, the CDC recommends vaccinations for everyone 6 months and older and boosters for ages 5 years and older if eligible. 

Children 6 months to 4 years old can now get a three-dose primary series of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine or a two-dose primary series of the Moderna vaccine. To find where vaccines are available, visit vaccines.gov

A post-pandemic mindset might be the biggest challenge to stopping the spread. 

“My concern about the current state of the illness is that we as a country are very fatigued with regard to hearing about COVID,” Franklin said. “Provided future variants are mild, this may not be much of an issue. If the virus were to mutate into a more aggressive form, however, I think we are going to have a lot of resistance to trying to reinstitute control measures (such as masks and social distancing).”

“At this point, we need to be vigilant and need to watch out for our neighbors, especially those who have chronic illnesses and health conditions,” Franklin added.

For more information on COVID-19, visit the CDC or Texas DSHS websites or consult your healthcare provider.

daniel@thepicayune.com