Health & Science

Cases Of The U.K. COVID-19 Variant In Houston Are Doubling By The Week, Researchers Say

The news underscores what doctors and researchers have been stressing for months: the importance of vaccinating as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, in order to reach herd immunity.

A vaccination record card is shown during a COVID-19 vaccination drive for Spring Branch Independent School District education workers Tuesday, March 16, 2021, in Houston. School employees who registered were given the Pfizer vaccine.

The number of new COVID-19 cases in the region caused by a more contagious U.K. variant is doubling every seven-to-10 days, according to researchers at Houston Methodist Hospital.

Scientists globally have projected the variant to be more contagious than previous strains, causing it to spread more easily within communities worldwide.

"There's no doubt that some time in the next month, month-and-a-half, and perhaps even before that, the U.K. variant will be the dominant variant in our community," said Dr. Jim Musser, chair of pathology and genomic medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital System.

Musser's team has been tracking the U.K. variant ever since it arrived in Houston in January. Since then, the hospital has found other known variants from Brazil, South Africa and California.

"Strangely, those other two variants are not increasing at all,” Musser said. “So this is really a unique increase of the U.K. variant in Houston."

The increased caseload from the U.K. variant have not yet had a significant impact in the region. The Houston Health Department reported a testing positivity rate of 9.8% on Monday, down from nearly 20% earlier this year.

The SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council, which tracks COVID-19 hospital data, reported the lowest number of COVID-19 patients in Harris County ICUs Wednesday — 310 — since the week after Thanksgiving.

But Musser said the danger of the U.K. variant is not something to be overlooked because of the impact it’s had overseas.

"It now accounts for about 98% of all the new cases in the U.K.,” Musser sad. “So there's something preferential here, in Houston, and in the U.K., about this variant."

The news underscores what doctors and researchers have been stressing for months: the importance of vaccinating as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, in order to reach herd immunity.

Researchers have said that vaccines currently being distributed in the United States are effective against the U.K. variant. But the variant's increased risk of transmission continues to add pressure on local and state governments to vaccinate sooner rather than later.

A member of the U.S. Air Force checks on patients after they received a COVID-19 vaccination at a Federal Emergency Management Agency vaccination supersite at NRG Park, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Houston.

A Houston-based pandemic vaccine task force, made up of people from various nonprofits, hospital systems and research groups, is helping those efforts.

Last week, the task force sent recommendations to the state's Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel, or EVAP, a group designated by Gov. Greg Abbott that’s in charge of selecting priority groups for the vaccine.

This month, the panel added teachers to priority group 1B, and created a new group 1C, giving vaccine priority to Texans 50 years and older, instead of 65 years and older.

The recommendations asked the state to take immediate action with vaccine distribution and allocation, by enhancing health equity, and giving the shot to high-risk individuals who have not yet been vaccinated.

"We have a COVID-19 vulnerability index that can really highlight areas where there are socially vulnerable individuals so that we can target those areas," said Allison Winnike, task force chair and president and CEO of the The Immunization Partnership.

Winnikie said the index keys in on communities that may face language barriers, or other challenges that may not allow residents living there to figure out how to sign up for a vaccine. That could mean communities where not many people have access to transportation to go to a vaccine site.

"Areas in the city of Houston considered more socially vulnerable, also are areas where there are high concentration of low-income individuals," Winnike says. "In some cases, places where English is not necessarily the majority language spoken in that area."

Harris County's case demographic data shows 50% of last week's total cases were among Latino residents, a demographic that has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 deaths.

With supply increase, the task force is hoping the state will help local efforts to reach those communities, whether it be creating a separate priority group, or assisting in Harris County and the city of Houston's effort to provide mobile vaccine units.

Outside of vaccine equity, Winnike's task force is asking for more transparency from EVAP regarding how priority groups are being selected.

Winnikie said when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes guideline recommendations for who should be prioritized, it is a "very open process,” taking recommendation from states and other outside parties.

But states like Texas can choose how they want to prioritize vaccine distribution, in a system that is much more opaque.

"What we have is EVAP, with folks nominated by the governor, and we haven't been able to see how they're choosing which are the next priority groups,” Winnikie said. “I think that it does a disservice to their great work, because people cannot watch the process. I think that the public would feel more comfortable if they can watch along to see how these decisions are being made."

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