AUSTIN, Texas (CBSDFW.COM/AP) – The top health official in Austin warned Tuesday, Dec. 15, that Christmas and New Year’s are likely to be grim as the coronavirus continues its aggressive surge in Central Texas, even as vaccinations provided a glimmer of hope in the fight against the pandemic.

Dr. Mark Escott, Austin’s interim health authority, told news station KVUE that the region is seeing “dozens and dozens” of positive cases, including entire families, that contracted COVID-19 due to Thanksgiving travel and gatherings.

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Hospitals in Austin could soon become overwhelmed, Escott said, like in other Texas cities such as El Paso and Lubbock.

“This is going to be a memorable Christmas for folks for the wrong reasons,” Escott said. “We are going to see unprecedented levels of cases and deaths in this community between now and the end of January if we don’t take action right now.”

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Travis County Judge Andy Brown and Austin Mayor Steve Adler sent a letter to area faith leaders Tuesday asking that they consider virtual holiday services or make the necessary changes to allow for masks and social distancing to protect the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

“We need your continued diligence to prevent reaching a crisis point,” they said in the letter.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 vaccine rollouts continued as more hospitals across Texas and throughout the U.S. received their allotments.

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Robert Luckey, a nurse in a COVID-19 unit, was the first to receive the vaccine at Memorial Hermann Health Systems in Houston.

The occasion was met with cheers.

“It’s a big moment,” Luckey said Tuesday. “So many people have been touched by the virus, the disease. I think this will be hope for a lot of people.”

Texas has reported more than 24,000 deaths linked to COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. That’s the second highest total number of deaths for any state in the country.

Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new coronavirus cases has increased by 2,405.4, an increase of 20.7%, according to the university’s data.

There were 703.4 new cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks in Texas, which ranks 41st in the country for new cases per capita. One in every 292 people in Texas tested positive in the past week.

(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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