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Harris County Confirms Texas’ First Case Of More Contagious COVID-19 Variant

A person in the mask screens visitors to the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
KTRK / POOL Footage
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo updates the public on a new strand of COVID-19 that hit Texas on Jan. 7, 2020.

Updated 3:14 p.m. CT

Harris County on Thursday confirmed Texas’ first case of a new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus first discovered in the U.K.

A man between the ages of 30 and 40 in southwest Harris County outside the city of Houston, with no travel history, tested positive for the COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7. The new variant is believed to be up to 70% more transmissible than previously identified strains of the virus, though not more severe. The currently approved vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are likely effective against the new variant, health officials have said.

While it’s just the first confirmed case, the lack of travel history suggests the variant is already circulating in Texas, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Thursday.

“This variant has the potential to throw jet fuel on an already dangerous situation, and the reason for that is, it is somewhat of a more turbocharged form of the virus,” Hidalgo said. “The more cases of this virus we see, the more people will be hospitalized, the more people will die. So please do not discount this.”

“For all we know it's something like the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

Harris County Public Health confirmed the man was stable and in isolation, where he will remain until cleared by health officials. Epidemiologists are conducting contact tracing in conjunction with the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Virus mutations are expected, according to Harris County Health Authority Dr. Sherri Onyiego, but health officials were monitoring the case closely.

“The prevention measures for this strain are no different and our community should continue staying home in addition to wearing facemasks, social distancing, getting tested, and washing your hands frequently,” read a statement from Onyiego. “We know that our community is growing COVID fatigue, but as cases and hospitalizations are steadily increasing, now is not the time to drop our guard down.”

The news comes two days after the Houston area surpassed Gov. Greg Abbott’s threshold for new restrictions: The region has seen COVID-19 patients make up 15% or more of hospital capacity for seven straight days, triggering rollbacks that include the closure of all bars and a reduction of indoor business capacity to 50%. The restrictions would only lift if the region dropped below that 15% threshold for seven straight days.

The positivity rate in Harris County is now at 16% for a 14-day rolling average, with more than 34,000 active cases. More than 2,600 people have died in Harris County alone.

There have been more than 1.6 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 across Texas since the beginning of the pandemic, and more than 28,000 deaths.

In a statement, Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt said that the new strain was believed to be responsible for only a small number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. But, he added, its contagious nature makes it especially important to adhere to strict public health guidelines.

“Genetic variations are the norm among viruses, and it's not surprising that it showed up here given how rapidly it spreads,” Hellerstedt said. “This should make us all redouble our commitment to the infection prevention practices that we know work: masks any time you're around people you don't live with, social distancing, and personal and environmental hygiene.”