Mask Up, Wash Up, Stay Apart

Here's What We Know about the New Covid-19 Variant Cases in Houston

The Houston Health Department has confirmed three new cases.

By Dianna Wray February 8, 2021

Updated 5:05 p.m. Feb 8 

We've known for a while that new strains of Covid-19 were in Houston, and today we're learning more. 

In a press conference this afternoon, Dr. David Persse, Houston's chief medical officer, announced there are three cases of Covid-19 variants in the Houston area, about a month after the CDC announced the first case of the UK variant in the Houston area. "Since then we've been working hard to identify more cases," said Persse. 

On Saturday city officials were informed that one case of the South African variant of Covid-19 has been found in Fort Bend County. Today, Fort Bend County Health Director Dr. Jacqueline Minter confirmed the news to the public. The person in question traveled via airports in December before testing positive for Covid-19. According to officials, that person's household tested negative and they isolated at home. They have since recovered. 

There are also two known cases with the UK variant in Houston, Persse said. Both cases are men in their 50s. One traveled traveled overseas in late December and into January, according to the Houston Health Department. The other did not. One of the two men is currently hospitalized. 

"At this point we have not identified any spread from these individuals," said Persse, but HHD has found evidence of the UK variant in the wastewater in several Houston neighborhoods. (Since last fall, HHD has been working with Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine to monitor Houston's waste to find traces of Covid-19 and better identify spread.) So far evidence of the UK variant has been found at very low levels. So, the health department is not yet sure how much spread there actually is, Persse said, reminding folks that this type of data collection is still very new. 

"The bottom line is that this is really no surprise," Persse said. "It should be a stark reminder for us that this is far from over." 

Published 2 p.m. Jan 7

We all knew this was likely coming, but now it's official: The new strain of Covid-19 has been confirmed to be in the Houston area. This also gives us the dubious honor of being the first city in Texas to identify this mutation of the virus, which is believed to be anywhere from 40 to 70 percent more contagious than the original form that we've been fighting all these months. 

The first known case involves a man in Southwest Harris County, between 30 and 40 years old, who has not traveled out of the area recently, according to a Harris County Public Health Department release. The patient is in stable condition and will be kept in isolation until he is cleared by local health authorities. Harris County Public Health epidemiologists are working with the Texas Department of State Health Services to identify, notify, and quarantine anyone the man may have been in contact with since he contracted the disease. 

"Though mutations of a virus are expected, we are closely monitoring this case and any potential contacts to prevent the ongoing spread of the virus at all levels,” Dr. Sherri Onyiego, Harris County's new Public Health Authority, stated according to a release. “The prevention measures for this strain are no different and our community should continue staying home in addition to wearing face masks, social distancing, getting tested, and washing your hands frequently. We know that our community has growing Covid fatigue, but as cases and hospitalizations are steadily increasing, now is not the time to drop our guard down.”

Although all evidence indicates the mutation will respond to the vaccine, local officials have been warning of the dangers of this strain of the virus arriving in our area since December because of how much easier it is for this version to spread. Just before Christmas, when the new mutation was discovered and confirmed to be present in the United Kingdom, Houston Health Department Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Persse noted that the reason to be particularly concerned was the r-value, the measure of how many people one person with a virus can infect. While this mutation does not seem to be more lethal, it is even more easily transmitted than the original iteration. Any virus with an r-value above one is highly contagious, and the new version of Covid-19 has an r-value of three, he said then. "That's a significant increase," he said.

Now that it is confirmed to be in our area, which is already seeing a growing number of cases, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is calling for people to be even more vigilant, as she stated on social media:

“This variant has the potential to throw jet fuel on an already dangerous situation,” Hidalgo further elaborated in a press conference on Thursday afternoon. “It’s something of a turbo-charged variant of the original strain.”

Onyiego also pointed out that the man's lack of any travel history is a clear indicator that the variant has probably been in the community for some time already. 

“This individual had no travel history so that really underscores the fact that even though this is a UK variant, it is already in our community,” Onyiego said during the press conference.

As of today, our region's Covid-19 positivity rate has gone up to 16 percent with nearly 251,000 confirmed cases in Harris County. So if you were starting to think that the advent of the vaccine meant we could stop masking up, think again. We've got an even more troubling adversary to deal with now. 

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