First omicron cases detected in Houston kids, including those under 5, says Texas Children’s Hospital – Houston Chronicle
Texas Children’s Hospital has detected its first omicron cases in children, officials said Tuesday, one day after the highly contagious mutation became the United States’ most dominant COVID-19 strain.
The hospital’s testing lab found evidence of the omicron variant in at least 35 percent of the hundreds of viral specimens that underwent genomic sequencing last week, Dr. James Versalovic, Texas Children’s pathologist-in-chief, said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.
The prevalence of omicron in the viral swabs, taken from among the hospital’s pediatric population, indicates that Houston-area children have been catching and transmitting the variant since at least the second week of December. Kids under the age of 5 are among those infected.
Doctors expect the percentage of pediatric omicron cases will rise in the coming days and weeks as the heavily mutated version of the virus overtakes the delta variant. Omicron accounted for 82 percent of new symptomatic Houston Methodist COVID cases as of earlier this week, higher than the national rate of 73 percent reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday.
It was unclear Tuesday whether the children infected with omicron were vaccinated against COVID. Just 10 percent of Houston-area children between the ages of 5 and 11 have received at least one jab, according to hospital tallies.
Those treated at Texas Children’s have been “almost exclusively” unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, Versalovic said.
Two years into the pandemic, omicron’s startling rise among children underscores just how contagious and fast-moving the virus has become. Like the alpha and delta variants, it appeared heavily mutated and with little warning. But unlike those earlier variants, it has overtaken pediatric populations with a speed that has shocked even virologists.
Delta, first found in Houston adults in April, was slower to appear in children; the first pediatric case was identified two months later, in June. By contrast, omicron was found in children within weeks of its detection in adults.
“It’s a race between the vaccines and the variants,” Versalovic said — and, right now, the variants appear to be winning.
Doctors have begun comparing omicron to measles, another highly contagious virus that spreads primarily through respiratory droplets.
“I’ve never seen anything like the speed of omicron,” Dr. Tom Frieden, a former CDC director under President Barack Obama, tweeted Monday. “It’s as infectious as measles spreading in a non-immune population, with a much shorter incubation time therefore much faster doubling time.”
The speed of contagion is important primarily because it means the virus will sicken more people at faster rates, with the potential to fill hospitals. Preliminary evidence indicates a previous delta infection does not confer much immune protection, given omicron’s significant mutations.
While little is known about the severity of the omicron variant and how it may affect children, Versalovic said the expected omicron onslaught could be shorter — and more intense — than the summertime delta wave.
“It could be that this surge may take off rapidly and may ebb rapidly,” he said.
The crush of new cases could sweep the city just as families gather for the holidays.
On Tuesday, Houston’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Persse urged residents to mask up and get tested ahead of Christmas travel. He also encouraged all eligible Houstonians to get vaccinated and boosted “as soon as possible.”
“These simple actions are especially important to protect children who are too young to be vaccinated,” Persse said.