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Health & Wellness

The omicron variant is detected in North Texas as COVID-19 cases begin to increase again

Jonathan De La Rosa
LM Otero
/
Associated Press
Sitting in his car, social worker Jonathan De La Rosa pulls up his sleeve to get a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine booster shot at a Dallas County drive-up vaccine site in Mesquite, Texas. Health experts believe the booster increases the antibodies needed to fight omicron.

As COVID-19 case numbers began to increase in Dallas, Tarrant, Collin, and Denton counties in December, health officials across the region announced their first cases detected of the new variant.

UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas verified one such case.

Dr. James Cutrell, an assistant professor in the infectious diseases department of UT Southwestern, talked with KERA’s Sam Baker about omicron — beginning with how it's spreading.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

Omicron accounted for 3% of U.S. COVID cases by mid-December. How is it spreading so fast?

Really the same as all of the other variants —- primarily person contact through either respiratory droplets or airborne spread.

What has gotten scientists’ attention is it may be as much as two to four times more easily spread than the Delta variant, although those estimates are still being refined.

Some of it may be that it's also able to partially escape immune protection, either from people who have been previously vaccinated or those who've had prior infection from COVID-19.

Severity of cases

So far, the early data would suggest most of the cases have been milder. However, I would caution it's still early to definitively know about disease severity. If there are large numbers of individuals who are getting infected, then there still may be some who get sick and require hospitalization.

Also, while there is concern that those who've only gotten two shots may not be as well protected against infection, we do think the vaccines are still going to provide some protection against more severe disease or certainly from death.

The booster shot’s more important now?

Yes, because the virus is able to partially escape the immune protection, one way to impede that escape is to boost the levels of antibodies to higher levels. So there's been really a renewed emphasis and push to encourage everyone to get a booster because that will restore a high level of antibody protection and will help mitigate somewhat the ability of omicron to escape the immune protection from a treatment standpoint.

Omicron and monoclonal antibodies

The main impact omicron may have is that it likely will lead some of our monoclonal antibody therapies to not be as effective. So one thing that we are following very closely at national and local levels is to look at what is the percentage of the total positive tests that are omicron.

If we start to see that percentage rising above 5% or so of the cases that are being detected, that could lead us to modify or adjust some of our recommendations around which monoclonal antibodies are the best to use for treatment.

Is omicron’s emergence around the holidays bad timing?

It doesn't really change what we need to be doing as we enter into this holiday season, but it increases the vigilance with which people need to go and get vaccinated.

  • If you're eligible for a booster, go and get that booster before you travel or gather with holiday plans.
  • I think people need to still be prudent about wearing masks when they're out in indoor crowded public spaces.
  • People showing signs or symptoms of illness shouldn't be going to work or school. They should get tested and should quarantine at home until they find out whether or not they're infected.

All of the prevention strategies that have worked in the past will work against omicron as well. We just have to be even more vigilant about practicing those strategies.
RESOURCES:

Omicron spreading rapidly in U.S. and could bring punishing wave as soon as January, CDC warns

COVID News: U.S. Deaths Surpass 800,000

New CDC data shows first-known omicron COVID patient in U.S. had symptoms starting Nov. 15

Omicron Variant: What You Need to Know

Answers to Your Questions About COVID Booster Shots and Omicron https://www.nytimes.com/article/booster-shots-questions-answers.html

Got a tip? Email Sam Baker at sbaker@kera.org. You can follow Sam on Twitter @srbkera.