The Coronavirus in Greater Houston

The COVID-19 omicron variant is likely already spreading in Houston. Here’s how we know

Health officials say the circumstances around how the variant was identified make it likely it’s already prevalent in the community.

AP Photo / David J. Phillip
A health care worker processes people waiting in line at a United Memorial Medical Center COVID-19 testing site Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, in Houston.

On Monday evening, a northwest Harris County woman in her 40s was confirmed to have tested positive for the COVID-19 omicron variant. She had no recent travel history, which local health leaders have said points to community spread.

Later that night, the Houston Health Department confirmed it had identified the variant in the city’s wastewater. And on Tuesday, the department revealed the variant was found in eight of 39 wastewater treatment plant samples.

All of this suggests that omicron is not only in the community, but is prevalent and spreading, health experts say.

And that means we’ll likely start to see an increase in hospitalizations soon, according to Houston Health Authority Dr. David Persse.

“We’ve seen a little bit of an uptick in the total amount of virus in the wastewater, so that would suggest to us that in about two weeks, we’re probably going to start seeing more hospitalizations for patients with COVID,” he said.

The first confirmed case of omicron in Houston was identified on Monday, confirmed on Twitter by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. The woman who tested positive was vaccinated and did not need to be hospitalized. Harris County Public Health and the Texas Department of State Health Services said in a press release that they are investigating the case.

The omicron variant, which was first identified by scientists in South Africa, first showed up in the U.S. in California. That person was vaccinated, had returned from a trip to South Africa. The Louisiana Department of Public Health identified its first case of omicron on Dec. 3 in an individual who had traveled within the U.S.

There’s a lot about the Omicron variant that’s still unknown, Persse said. The two things to be concerned about with any new COVID-19 variant are how fast it spreads and how sick it makes people.

Eventually, Persse said COVID-19 and new variants will be a less of a major part of people’s daily lives. Waves of infection will become less intense, and the virus will fade into the background like other infectious diseases have in the past.

It could take years to reach that point.

“Eventually we will get there,” Persse said. “Whether that’s one year, two years, three years, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Because the omicron variant is known to spread quickly, it’s not a surprise that its been found in Harris County, said Dr. John Hellerstedt, DSHS commissioner. In a press release, Hellerstedt said that the best protection against serious illness and death from any COVID-19 variant is getting vaccinated.

“Everyone 5 years and older is eligible for vaccination,” Hellerstedt said. “Everyone 18 years and older should get a booster shot when they are eligible.”

Although some epidemiologists in South Africa are reporting milder cases with Omicron, Persse said people in the U.S. who are unvaccinated that have not been previously infected with the virus could be at risk. Most of South Africa’s population has been previously infected, which Persse said could be providing them protection from serious illness when they’re reinfected with Omicron.

No matter how mild the symptoms are, hospitals could still be overwhelmed if the omicron variant overcomes delta, the predominant strain in the U.S.

Omicron spreads rapidly, so it could infect even more people than the Delta variant. If a large percentage of the population gets infected with the new variant, more people could end up hospitalized than the already full hospitals can handle.

"The cases will start to increase," said Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital. "Will (omicron) overtake delta here in Texas? It’s hard to say. Delta’s been the king of all variants. In terms of transmissibility, it’s hard to imagine how something could overtake it."

Hotez’s concern is echoed by many health experts, who remain more concerned with delta. Hotez called omicron his "second biggest concern," behind the continuing delta wave in Texas.

"I mean, what could be worse than the fact that we’ve had 20,000 unvaccinated Texans since June 1 needlessly lose their lives out of vaccine defiance and refusal?" Hotez said. "When I think about things that keep me up at night, it’s the next wave of the delta variant. So I think that’s one to keep things in perspective. We’ve done a terrible job vaccinating the state of Texas."

Matt Harab contributed reporting

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