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Texas steps up omicron tracking as first case surfaces in Harris County

A person in a teal sweater receives information about COVID vaccines from a worker in a white sweater, mask and face shield, inside a large warehouse.
Keren Carrión
The Omicron variant of the COVID virus first showed up in Harris County, and state officials are stepping up their tracking efforts.

Texas health officials are ramping up efforts to identify and track cases of the COVID-19 omicron variant, which was confirmed in Harris County on Monday.

“Omicron variant is already in Texas and maybe spreading in communities,” said Chief State Epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Shuford. “We also know in reports from Houston that they have detected it in their waste water as well.”

Officials with the Texas Department of State Health Services have anticipated omicron’s arrival in the state since it was first identified last month in South Africa and spread rapidly to other continents. Several other states in the U.S. had already confirmed omicron cases as well.

In order to track the variant in Texas, Dr. Shuford said DSHS has established genetic sequencing partnerships with the University of Texas School of Public Health, as well as other academic medical centers and commercial labs across Texas.

“Knowing that omicron is on our horizon and probably already here circulating in Texas, we are trying to increase those efforts in the very short term so that we have improved surveillance all across the state,” she said.

Identifying where cases are found and tracking how fast the variant spreads will help inform the best medical response and public health policies.

According to Shuford there is some encouraging news from South Africa that the omicron variant may cause less severe illness than previous variants, such as delta. “However, South Africa has a very different population than we have. It’s a younger population and their vaccination coverage looks different than ours.”

Within the next month, said Shuford, the scientific and medical communities should have a better understanding about omicron’s transmissibility and potential for causing severe illness.

Among the greatest concerns is omicron’s ability to evade immunity from prior COVID-19 infections and vaccinations.

“It’s just something we don’t know enough about yet,” Shuford said.

Dr. Peter Hotez, epidemiologist with Baylor College of Medicine, said omicron is a variant of concern. However, the COVID expert placed it as 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.”

The doctor added that the number of people who test positive for omicron and the number of hospitalizations related to the variant will likely rise soon, and that Texas could be looking at a “twin epidemic” of the two variants.

“The cases will start to increase,” he said. “Will it 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.”

The best way to prevent severe illness from any variant of COVID-19 and avoid overwhelming the state’s medical resources, said Shuford, remains vaccinating as much of the state’s eligible population as possible.

She also stressed other public health precautions proven to work since the onset of the pandemic last year, such as social distancing, wearing masks in crowded spaces, getting tested for the virus before attending holiday gatherings, and regular hand washing.

“We’ve had time to prove that those things work and now that we have an introduction of a new variant we can pull those things out and use them again or keep using them to protect ourselves against the variant.”

Additional reporting by Houston Public Media’s Matt Harab.

Joseph Leahy anchors morning newscasts for NPR's statewide public radio collaborative, Texas Newsroom. He began his career in broadcast journalism as a reporter for St. Louis Public Radio in 2011. The following year, he helped launch Delaware's first NPR station, WDDE, as an afternoon newscaster and host. Leahy returned to St. Louis in 2013 to anchor local newscasts during All Things Considered and produce news on local and regional issues. In 2016, he took on a similar role as the local Morning Edition newscaster at KUT in Austin, before moving over to the Texas Newsroom.