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Dallas Prepares for Omicron, Which Has Been Found in Frisco

The newest COVID-19 variant has reached North Texas. Here is what local experts are saying.
Downtown from the Trinity River Basin
Courtesy of AT&T and City of Dallas

When I spoke with Dallas County Medical Director Dr. Philip Huang about the inevitable arrival of the omicron variant of COVID-19, there were still more questions than answers. But based on what we now know, the advice hasn’t changed much about what to do as omicron spreads in the U.S. 

The variant was first detected in South Africa. On Thursday morning, public health officials announced that two cases of the omicron variant had been found in patients in Frisco. This was only a matter of time, and the variant was likely here, only undetected. The first confirmed case was in Houston, which identified the variant through wastewater.

While many of the cases in the country have been tied to travel, most now come from community spread. The U.S. enacted travel bans to eight countries in South Africa, which is a wedge between the U.S. and other countries we need to work with to better understand this variant. Meanwhile, travel bans are not an evidence-based practice to stop the spread of the virus. There are still hundreds of new COVID-19 infections every day in Dallas County. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID County Check tool, Dallas County is rated “substantial transmission,” and Tarrant County is “high transmission” for the virus, and mask-wearing is recommended for indoor activities. 

So, what do we know so far? There is good news and bad news. Omicron seems to be highly contagious and quickly became the most dominant strain in South Africa. Still, symptoms appear to be closer to the common cold than the severe flu experienced by previous variants. This pattern follows what many have said would eventually happen to COVID-19: that it would become endemic and part of the yearly cold and flu season we all have to deal with, but not something that would shut down society.

Recent research out of South Africa says omicron evades some of the protection from the vaccine but that vaccinated individuals are mostly protected from severe illness and death due to COVID-19. More recently, Pfizer said its booster is effective against omicron, as well. 

How should all of this impact our behavior? Right now, Huang says, we should continue to do the things public health officials have long recommended. First, get vaccinated and get a booster shot if you are able. Both add protection against all the versions of the virus and make it unlikely that recipients will end up in the hospital following a breakthrough infection. Social distancing, mask wearing, and other COVID-19 precautions are still recommended. 

“It’s a cause for concern, but not panic,” Huang says of omicron. “It should be a wake-up call and reminder that we need to continue to take this seriously and do the things we know will help slow the virus.”

Huang says the county is working with state and federal health officials to monitor omicron’s spread, which is detected by sequencing the virus. They are also continuing to push vaccinations and booster shots throughout the county. Since the omicron variant was discovered, he says the county has seen an uptick in vaccinations. After giving as few as 8,500 doses per week earlier this year, the last few weeks have been closer to 15,000 per week. The county is still running pop-up vaccination events at Fair Park and Eastfield College. 

More time will be needed to see if serious infections will develop from the variant or if omicron will have a higher mortality rate. Researchers are working to see if a separate vaccine will be needed as well. The good news is that we are much more prepared than we were before.

“We’re at such a better advantage at this point than we were a year ago in that we have the tools to combat the virus,” says Dr. Tiffany Kindratt, an assistant professor in the public health program at UT Arlington. “There is the thought that perhaps it will evade the vaccine immunity, and we are seeing that it is more transmissible. We are seeing that there are more reinfections because naturally-induced immunity is going away. But we’re not starting from square one.”

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