A New Omicron Variant Poses a Threat With Already Growing COVID-19 Cases in Houston

Dr. Peter Hotez urges more caution with a new variant of COVID in the wind.
Dr. Peter Hotez urges more caution with a new variant of COVID in the wind.

A new dominant variant of COVID-19 in the Northeast leaves Houston bracing for impact and the possibility of a third brutal winter wave reminiscent of those in 2021 and 2022.

The latest variant of the omicron family, XBB1.5, started to rapidly accelerate in both New York and New England in early January, said Dr. Peter Hotez Co-Director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital and Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

“The worry is that this will become the new dominant variant across the United States and will lead to a third winter wave similar to that of the alpha wave in 2021 or the VA.1 omicron wave in 2022,” said Hotez.

This could also mean that BQ.1.1, the current dominant variant that accounts for 40 percent of the cases in Harris County, could be replaced by this new variant.

According to Hotez, XBB1.5 is already starting to take gradual effect in Texas, accounting for 16 to 17 percent of the state’s current cases.

If XBB1.5 continues to rise, so will the case numbers, hospitalizations, wastewater numbers and positivity rate in the area, said Hotez.

All of which are already on the rise, as the daily average of new reported cases climbs from 2,730 cases last December to 3,107 cases a day so far this month, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

In addition, the Texas Medical Center also has been reporting a rise. These statistics are as of  January 10:

  • TMC Test Positivity: Last week, the 7-day average COVID-19 testing positivity rate was 11.8% for TMC hospital systems.
    • Previous week: 11.1% positivity
  • TMC Hospital Admits: TMC admitted 182 new COVID-19 patients per day in TMC hospital institutions4.
    • Previous week: 168 hospitalizations/day
  • City of Houston Wastewater: On average, the wastewater viral load was 999% of baseline
    • Last Week: 419% viral load
    • Baseload: 100% on July 2020

Increases in COVID-19 cases are nothing new, as the “scrabble variants' ' of omicron Hotez refers to contributed to the start of a new wave of the virus in late November to early December. At this time, Houstonians also had to avoid contracting two other illnesses - RSV and the flu.

When these “scrabble variants” emerged, health officials realized that the available bivalent booster’s effectiveness decreased slightly, yet still proved to protect against severe illness and hospitalization.

This is also the case with XBB1.5, as Hotez said despite not having specific data to analyze how effective the bivalent booster will be against the new variant people will be better off with it than without it.

This new variant also gives the chance for a stronger and more effective bivalent booster or a trivalent booster to be developed, said Hotez.

“It may be more beneficial for cross-neutralization to swap out the current bivalent booster with a more MRNA specific vaccine for XBB 1.5 or to make the bivalent become a trivalent vaccine and combine the two,” said Hotez.

Though the Food and Drug Administration has not yet announced any of these options of bivalent booster production, there could be some indication of what is to come as their Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will be meeting on January 23.

With variants like these continuing to emerge, the Houston Health Department hosted the latest installment of its COVID-19 discussions on January 6.

During the discussion, Dr. David Persse, Houston Health Department’s Public Health Authority and Dr. Ericka Brown, Division Director for Community Health and Wellness Division and Deputy Local Health Authority of Harris County Public Health, addressed the public and provided updated information and advice on how to prevent and treat the virus.

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Dr. David Persse represents the city of Houston during the public health forum, advising residents on the do's and don't have COVID-19 preventative care.

Brown, a local primary care physician, warned the public to be cautious of what events they attend and where they go out for dinner, especially if they have not been boosted.

Hotez suggests the same, asking for those who are not boosted or want to reduce their chances of infection to avoid indoor crowded spaces - like restaurants, concerts and bars. Hotez is particularly concerned about the impact that the upcoming Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo will have on increasing cases.

“I think the big question is going to be, as we head into rodeo season, is what XBB1.5 looks like and hopefully it will all come down significantly by the time the rodeo begins,” Hotez said. “Otherwise, it’s going to create problems.”

The City of Houston is taking preventative measures by encouraging Houstonians to get their boosters continuing to provide access to free testing and vaccinations at several Houston Health Department’s multi-service centers.

In regard to masking in public areas, there is no discussion currently about a mask policy despite the rise in cases, said Mary Benton, Director of Communications for the Houston Mayor's Office.