After new COVID strain is detected near Houston, how are local authorities responding?

Published 12:22 am Thursday, December 9, 2021

With the introduction of a new COVID-19 variant during the holiday season, public health officials are watching pandemic numbers closely. However, if those shown locally after Thanksgiving are any indication, the Christmas season hopefully will not bring a large increase of coronavirus cases to Mid and South County.

“Last year around this time, we didn’t have the ability to vaccinate people before they congregated for Christmas,” said Judith Smith, director of the Port Arthur Health Department. “Literally after every holiday last year, we had a surge. This year will hopefully look a little different because people have been able to get vaccines.”

From Nov. 23-29, during the course of Thanksgiving, the department that serves four cities reported only 17 new cases.

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READ MORE: Port Arthur reaches 101 COVID deaths since pandemic’s beginning.

And it was during that holiday break that news of omicron, the latest variant of COVID, began to spread. The first case in the U.S. was detected in California after an individual returned Nov. 22 from a trip to South Africa.

“When we came back from Thanksgiving, we saw so many more people coming in, and a lot of first-time doses,” Smith said. “That was a very good thing.”

About 57 percent of Texans 5 and older have been vaccinated as of Wednesday, according to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services.

Smith said calls to the center have also increased regarding questions on where to get tested.

“With flu season coming in, too, people want to know what’s going on with them,” she said.

Omicron

As of right now, Smith said, not much is known about the newest COVID strain.

“Based on what they have seen over the last few weeks, they’re saying that it looks like it may not cause a lot of hospitalizations,” she said. “But it’s really, really too early to say if it will or not.

The strain that was first identified in South Africa “may spread more easily than other variants, including Delta,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“Breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated are expected, but vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations and death,” the CDC says on its website.

Some monoclonal antibody treatments, however, may not be as effective in fighting the strain. That was considered instrumental treatment in late summer when delta caused a significant surge in cases locally and across the state.

Omicron was first detected in Texas Monday.

A woman in her 40s in Harris County tested positive for the strain, according to information from the Texas Tribune.

While fully vaccinated and not hospitalized, it is said the woman had not traveled outside of her immediate area and had likely caught omicron in her own community.

“We just want people to remain vigilant and remember we’re still in this,” Smith said.

The health director said public health’s stance remains: get vaccinated if you can, get booster shots if available, maintain social distancing when around people that might not be vaccinated, and continue to wear a mask in public.