Q&A: Dr. Jennifer Shuford MD, Chief State Epidemiologist at Texas DSHS, on statewide uptick in COVID-19 cases


Boram Kim


State of Reform sat down with Dr. Jennifer Shuford, the Chief Epidemiologist in Texas to discuss the recent rise in public health threat levels across the state, especially in North Texas. With the number of infections and hospitalizations on the rise statewide, she shared guidance on how Texans can protect themselves and their communities in the months ahead. 


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State of Reform: What is the current situation on the ground there in Texas, epidemiologically speaking, and how concerned should the public be about the latest variants?

Dr. Jennifer Shuford: “Right now, there is a lot of COVID-19 circulating all across the state. Thankfully, although we’re seeing an increase in hospitalizations, we still have plenty of hospital capacity to be able to take care of those people. We’re not getting to the point where our health care systems are strained, yet.  So that’s great. 

One of the things though that we’re letting people know about is that [community surges in infections] can really have these severe outcomes of hospitalization and death. There are ways that you can protect yourself against some of those really bad outcomes. One of those is through vaccination. We’ve got lots of COVID-19 vaccinations in Texas. There are alot of people who are eligible for either that primary series—so getting that first set of shots–—or for boosters. Especially for the folks who are 50 years of age or older, they can get a second booster now. 

We know from some data that we have had all along and some that just came out today [Friday, July 15th] from the CDC that having those booster doses during these omicron subvariants that keep circulating can really protect people. If you’re eligible for a booster and still haven’t gotten one, now is the time to do it because it really can protect you.”

SOR: The vaccines for children 6 months and older are available now. How have vaccination efforts to protect this younger population been going so far? And what would you say to families who are hesitant to vaccinate their young ones?

JS: “We have had fantastic providers all across Texas get vaccines–in their clinics or their health departments–and be ready to vaccinate these little ones. We know that it’s a little bit slower in uptake than what we saw with some of the older age groups. But we also know that this young age group of 6 months to 4 or 5 years old can still get COVID-19 and have some severe outcomes. 

When the FDA has authorized this, they looked at the safety profile in this really young age [group] and when CDC made their recommendations, they looked at the the impact that these vaccines would have on this age group and kind of looked at both the risks and the benefits to even this younger age group and found that these vaccines can be really helpful [and] that the benefits do outweigh the risks even when we’re looking at these little ones. So it is a good idea to go ahead and get that primary series of vaccines for the little babies [and] toddler-age [children].”

SOR: What is the COVID guidance ahead of the fall flu and back to school season?

JS: “We know that with that back to school push, a lot of parents do go out and get their kids vaccinated and so now is a good time to get those really little ones vaccinated. Those older school age kids can get a booster dose ahead of school, and the adults can as well. We know that as we move into the fall that some of these manufacturers are trying to make boosters that really do target omicron a little bit better. And so we think that we’ll have slightly different booster doses as we get closer to Thanksgiving. But in the meantime, these vaccines can provide a lot of protection against those more severe outcomes of COVID-19. 

But of course there’s always other things that we can do to add that extra layer of protection, even with all of these variants. We know that some things still work, like distancing from each other, if you are in a crowded place or around people that you don’t know, like in public spaces.  

Or wearing masks; masks can protect the person that’s wearing them, and they can protect other people in case you’ve got that asymptomatic or really mildly symptomatic case of COVID-19. A lot of people are getting reinfected right now even if they had previous infection or even if they’ve been vaccinated, [and] they might get a mild case.

It’s a good measure to put on a mask especially if you’re in those places outside of your household in public, or if you’re visiting people or know people who are more vulnerable, more at risk of some of those severe outcomes. It’s just an extra layer of prevention for yourself and for others.”

SOR: What would you say are Texas’s biggest needs from a public health perspective? What can policymakers and stakeholders do to improve public health in Texas as of right now?

JS: “We are certainly letting [policymakers] know on a regular basis about how this science is evolving. This was a brand new virus two and a half years ago and so we’re still getting new research every day. As this virus mutates, we’re getting new research about how it’s changing and what we need to do to protect ourselves. We’ll just keep pushing out that science so that those decision-makers really have all the information that they need to make good decisions.”

This interview was edited for clarity and length.