Will the omicron variant bring another winter COVID surge to Houston? – Houston Chronicle

Heading into Thanksgiving, area health experts were optimistic that the Houston region could weather a holiday season without a significant rise in COVID-19 infections.

But the discovery of the omicron variant in South Africa shrouds that prediction in uncertainty, as scientists race to find out whether the variant will cause yet another surge in severe illness and death.

“Before omicron, I was very confident in our vaccine protection and what we could do if we had fully vaccinated families,” said Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist with UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas. “But I think there’s so much uncertainty right now that I’m not advising on what to do for the holidays yet. I think we need to see more data.”

The concerning development comes as COVID numbers stagnate across Texas and other southern states that were pummeled by the delta variant in August and September. Experts attribute the low number of infections to growing vaccine coverage and immunity from a previous infection. However, studies show natural immunity only lasts about three months after infection — a timeline that would leave many unvaccinated people vulnerable to infection by Christmas.

About 57 percent of all Harris County residents have received their two-dose vaccine series or their single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to the county’s dashboard. Statewide, that figure drops to about 54 percent.

“The clear and present message for everybody is that now is the time to get vaccinated, even if you got COVID in the summer,” said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, chief of infectious diseases with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston.

After South African health officials alerted the world to the new variant on Nov. 25, the World Health Organization labeled it a “variant of concern” because of its mutations that are thought to make it more infectious. Much is still unknown about omicron’s transmissibility and whether it causes more severe disease. Studies are underway to determine whether it could outpace delta — still the dominant strain the U.S. and many other parts of the world — and whether it could evade some protection from the vaccines and COVID treatments.

South African health officials said the variant appears to be driving a new wave of infections there, and it has already been detected in travelers to more than 10 European countries, according to news reports. The variant had not been detected in the U.S. as of Tuesday, though health officials say its presence in the country is inevitable.

Despite the lack of data on omicron, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said the current vaccines likely will provide some degree of protection from severe illness. But there are signs that the popular monoclonal antibody treatments may need to be modified. Regeneron on Tuesday said its preliminary data showed the new strain might render its antibody treatment less effective.

In Houston, the search for omicron is underway.

The Houston Health Department said it is testing wastewater samples weekly. The genome sequencing team at Houston Methodist has been working until late hours of the night since omicron’s discovery, testing each new positive COVID test in the hospital system, said Dr. Wesley Long, clinical pathologist and medical director of diagnostic microbiology.

The most recent round of tests, which covered samples collected the week before Thanksgiving, showed delta is still the primary threat in the Houston-area, he said.

“The number of omicron cases detected (worldwide) is still fairly low,” he said. “So it may be another week or two before we have a case in Houston or before we know we have a case in Houston.”

Aside from the new variant, a projected flu resurgence adds another complication to the upcoming holiday. Texas Children’s Hospital saw its first cases of the flu last weekend, said Dr. Stan Spinner, vice president and chief medical officer of Texas Children’s Pediatrics and Texas Children’s Urgent Care.

He worries it could be only the beginning.

“If we have both (the flu and COVID) coming together, the strain certainly on medical facilities and hospitals to deal with that is a big problem,” he said.

For now, hospitals in the Texas Medical Center “feel like they’re pretty well positioned” to handle another COVID surge, said Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine.

The number of new COVID hospitalizations has remained low throughout November. Last week, an average of 63 patients were admitted to medical center hospitals per day, compared to 390 in the late-August peak.

COVID patients now make up only 9 percent of the 1,211 occupied ICU beds in the Texas Medical Center. There are more than 100 additional beds available within the medical center’s baseline ICU capacity and another 877 beds available in its surge capacity.

Both McDeavitt and Ostrosky urged people to think critically about the level of risk involved in their specific holiday gatherings, especially with the dearth of information surrounding omicron.

McDeavitt has created a step-by-step guide that allows people to calculate their risk based on a number of factors, including the level of community transmission and the number of people in the group with underlying medical conditions.

“I would encourage people to be thoughtful … but not to panic,” McDeavitt said.

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Source: https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/health/article/Will-the-omicron-variant-bring-another-winter-16663712.php

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