Houston sees early signs of new omicron-fueled COVID wave as Texas Medical Center cases triple – Houston Chronicle
Houston is seeing early signs of another wave of COVID-19 infections, fueled in part by a fast-spreading omicron variant, as public health officials warn of a nationwide spike in cases as early as next month.
The daily average of positive cases in the Texas Medical Center more than tripled last week, from 232 to 721, and Houston Methodist on Tuesday recorded nearly five times the number of positive cases in its system compared to the previous week. Harris County Public Health on Tuesday reported 483 new cases, the highest single-day total in more than two months.
The number of omicron cases in Houston detected through genome sequencing is small but rising, with Houston Methodist reporting 54 samples of the new strain Wednesday, compared to 31 four days earlier. The variant now makes up roughly 32 percent of cases in the hospital system, up from 13 percent on Saturday. Traces of omicron are also being detected at a growing number of city’s wastewater treatment plants.
With little data available in what is considered the early stages of the new variant’s spread, experts are uncertain about the degree to which it could overwhelm the healthcare system — a critical question in the months ahead. They are, however, growing more confident of an imminent swell of sickness.
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“We’re going to have a wave. I don’t doubt it at all,” said Dr. Rodrigo Hasbun, professor of infectious diseases with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. “It’s just the magnitude of it and the duration that’s in question.”
Omicron first became known on Thanksgiving in South Africa, drawing widespread concern because of its mutations that allow it to dodge antibodies and possibly become more transmissible than earlier strains. Since then, it has already become the dominant strain in South Africa. Infections have exploded in Britain, which on Wednesday reported its highest-ever total of new cases in a single day with 78,610. European Union officials said omicron could become the dominant strain across the continent by mid-January.
Omicron is also making inroads in the United States. It has now been detected in all but 17 states and accounts for 2.9 percent of the country’s cases, a jump from 0.4 percent last week. In Houston, there are signs that omicron could usurp delta, still the country’s most dominant strain, in a matter of weeks.
“Given the increase we are seeing in omicron, we could very possibly be at 100 percent omicron by January,” said Dr. Wesley Long, medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist. “That would be a faster sweep than even the delta variant, which took about a three-month span to sweep prior variants and achieve 100 percent. It is also possible that delta remains in some equilibrium with omicron over time.”