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Texas has identified its first case of the omicron COVID-19 variant, a strain marked as potentially more contagious than any before, including the delta variant responsible for spikes that continue across the country, health officials at the United States said. is Monday.
The variant was identified in Texas in a Harris County woman in her 40s, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services and county Judge Lina Hidalgo.
There are still many questions surrounding ommicron, even as it remains high on the radar of state and federal health officials.
While early indicators suggest the variant is highly contagious, it’s still unknown whether it will infect people faster or cause more hospitalizations than the delta variant, which currently represents nearly all active cases in Texas.
It could also take another month, experts say, to find out how effective vaccines or natural immunity will be against the ommicron variant.
Other unknowns include how sick it will make those infected and whether it will be milder or more aggressive than the delta variant.
Hidalgo said the woman in whom the variant was discovered has no recent travel history.
Since omicron has been circulating in other countries for several weeks, the confirmation of its arrival in Texas came as no surprise to state health officials, who said it’s likely the variant has been around for longer in the state.
The first case of the ommicron variant in the US was reported in California on Wednesday. Since then, more cases have surfaced in other states, including New York and Minnesota.
Texas health officials are already on the lookout for a potential holiday wave — whether caused by delta, by omicron or some other variant — and are pushing for more Texans to get their vaccines. About 55% of Texans are fully vaccinated by December 1.
“Prevention is important and vaccination remains our best prevention tool,” said Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Federal health officials are also urging eligible vaccinated adults to get their booster shots to increase their protection against COVID-19. Of fully vaccinated Texans, only 18.5% of them have received a booster shot, according to state health numbers.
Texas hospitals continue to struggle with staff shortages after two years of deadly spikes and a summer surge in deaths and hospitalizations that left a record number of ICUs filled to the brim.
A wave of illness worse than delta would put even more strain on already overstretched resources, hospital officials say — but if the wave is a milder form of illness, it may not have much of an effect on hospital capacity or the impact of the Texas pandemic.
“Right now, at least for us, it’s been 100% delta for weeks,” says Dr. Randall Olsen, medical director of the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at Houston Methodist Hospital, where nearly every positive COVID-19 sample is tested to identify variants. . “Delta has outperformed every other variant we had before. So [omicron] … will have to gain a foothold, and if it is to be successful, it will have to displace delta as the main cause [of new cases]. It’s going to have to be a substantial pathogen to do that.”
Early signs of whether it is capable of doing so are mixed.
The variant has been identified in more than two dozen countries in the past month. But so far, no deaths have been linked to omicron. A South African doctor who has been instrumental in identifying early cases said symptoms in omicron patients have so far been mild. And there is early evidence that the booster injection helps protect against ommicron.
At the same time, hospital admissions have skyrocketed in recent weeks in the South African province where omicron was first identified — and where the new strain has overtaken the delta variant in prevalence among new cases there. A South African infectious disease expert told Reuters on Tuesday that omicron is showing signs of being highly contagious.
And the structure of the ommicron variant has an unusually high number of mutations, which caught the attention of the World Health Organization last week, both because it is unique and because that structure could give the virus more opportunities to spread.
Scientists still don’t know where the variant comes from.
Omicron is one of five COVID-19 variants currently classified by the WHO as “of concern,” meaning their genetic makeup gives them the potential to create large spikes or worsen the course of the pandemic.
The most potent to date is the highly contagious delta variant, which infected humans faster than any other species and prevented other variants from spreading widely.
Delta, still the most common variant worldwide, raged through unvaccinated communities both in Texas and nationwide over the summer, sparking another rise in cases, hospitalizations and daily death rates that reached some of the highest levels. of the pandemic.
Discovered in India in late 2020 but first identified in the US in March, the delta variant is the variant responsible for the increasing number of cases and hospitalizations currently seen in West Texas and states such as New Mexico. and Colorado, experts say.
“I think it remains to be seen whether this [omicron] is going to overtake the delta variant, but there’s some concern…that it’s possible this could happen,” said Dr. Jason Bowling, an epidemiologist for University Health at San Antonio. “It was all delta, delta, delta for a while. …
“Maybe there’s a new kid around.”
Kailyn Rhone contributed to this story.