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Omicron spread in Austin likely after first Texas case confirmed, health leaders say

Heather Osbourne
Austin American-Statesman

A day after the omicron variant of the coronavirus was confirmed in the Houston area, the Austin area's top public health official said it is likely that omicron will soon be confirmed in other counties in the state.

The Texas Department of State Health Services said omicron, classified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization in late November, was detected in Harris County on Monday.

Health experts have said it's too soon to tell how concerned the public should be about the omicron variant. Scientists determined that an earlier variant, delta, was more transmissible than the original strain and fueled the most recent surge in COVID-19 cases last summer. 

Harris County, which has a population of more than 4.7 million, is the same area where the original strain was first confirmed in Texas in March 2020. Harris County is the most populated county in the state and the third most populous in the nation. 

More:What is the omicron COVID-19 variant, and should we be worried?

Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, told the American-Statesman on Tuesday that omicron probably will be confirmed throughout Texas, similar to how the original strain spread from Harris County and delta spread after being confirmed in Dallas County. 

More:Fact-check: Are warnings about virus variants meant to 'keep the fear going'?

Walkes explained that while Travis County is not specifically testing for the omicron variant, swabs from PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, tests detect a particular characteristic that is now linked to omicron.

If an Austin or Travis County swab has that characteristic, the test is sent to the state for official confirmation. 

No swabs so far have contained the characteristic of omicron in the Austin area, Walkes said Tuesday. 

More:Austin gas prices down 4 cents as omicron COVID variant lessens global fuel demand

"It's called the S-Gene Target Failure and, if we see that, we can send it off for sequencing," Walkes explained Tuesday.

"That's what they initially saw in South Africa," she continued, referencing the country where the omicron variant was first detected. "It prompted them to look further at the sequencing, and that's when they identified it."  

Omicron might be less severe than delta

Early reports from South Africa now indicate that omicron, like delta, might be more contagious than the original strain, according to a report from USA Today on Tuesday. 

COVID-19 cases in South Africa's Gauteng province are doubling every day, and 75% of infections are from omicron, USA Today reported. There is also a week-over-week increase in hospital admissions.

What might end up being good news for Texans is that reports from South Africa suggest that while omicron spreads fast, it appears to cause milder symptoms than delta.

Delta, which swept through Texas over the summer, caused a record number of cases and hospitalizations as people infected with the disease had more severe symptoms than the original strain. 

So far, omicron has not led to increases in deaths or hospitalizations that require oxygen, the report said. 

However, health experts say they need a few more weeks before presenting official data on omicron, according to USA Today.

"This looks to be a highly infectious virus, but it might not be as virulent or as pathogenic as the delta variant," said Dr. Warner Greene, director of the Center for HIV Cure Research at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco. "But more data is needed to make any firm conclusions."

More:Omicron could be more contagious, less dangerous. That would be 'good news for the human race.'

Health leaders push for vaccine boosters 

In response to the omicron variant, Austin Public Health is again encouraging residents to receive their COVID-19 vaccine booster shots.

Walkes, who touted a record 5,157 boosters administered by the agency last week, said the best protection against any version of the coronavirus is vaccination. 

"The more people that we get vaccinated before the holidays, the better," Walkes said. "This is a vaccine-preventable illness and we want everybody to have the opportunity to enjoy the holidays with friends and family." 

On Nov. 4, state officials began including children ages 5 to 11 in their vaccination reports. As of Tuesday, about 78.8% of Travis County residents 5 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine. About 68.8% of county residents 5 and older are fully vaccinated.

State vaccination rates also continued to improve, as 69.5% of Texans 5 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine. About 59.8% of Texans 5 and older are fully vaccinated.

More:What is the omicron COVID-19 variant, and should we be worried?

Austin Public Health on Tuesday was tracking 102 people in the hospital with COVID-19, compared with the pandemic record high of 653 patients tallied Aug. 25. 

Only 39 people were in Austin area ICUs for COVID-19. That number hit a pandemic record high of 237 on Aug. 22. The 21 patients on ventilators remained a large improvement over the pandemic record high of 174 set Aug. 29. 

Although Austin and Travis County's seven-day average of new daily hospital admissions has remained below 14, Stage 2 territory, the area is still in Stage 3. 

The reason behind remaining in Stage 3 is Walkes began using another key indicator to better determine the risks posed by the coronavirus: the community transmission rate. 

Diane Ginsburg, clinical professor and associate dean of the College of Pharmacy at the University of Texas, prepares Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Vaccination Celebration at UT last month. As of Tuesday, about 78.8% of Travis County residents 5 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine. About 68.8% of county residents 5 and older are fully vaccinated.

Walkes said the community transmission rate, which tracks new cases per 100,000 people over seven days, was 67.8 on Tuesday. Stage 3 territory is when the rate is between 10 and 49. If the rate stays high, it could trigger a move to Stage 4.