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Texas health experts 'not panicking' over COVID's omicron variant, expect cases to appear soon

 A Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is prepared
Michael Minasi
A Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is prepared during a pop-up vaccine clinic over the summer in East Austin.

Doctors and health officials in Texas say that the omicron variant of COVID-19 could be found in the state within the next couple of weeks — if it’s not already here. No cases had been reported in the U.S. as of Monday afternoon.

San Antonio Metropolitan Health District officials are monitoring the situation, and said they “fully expect to see some cases soon.”

“It will take two to four weeks to begin to know how serious a threat this is… The new omicron variant has been described as ‘extremely mild’ by the South African doctor who first raised the alarm over the new strain,” a statement from Metro Health said.

Dr. Peter Hotez with Baylor College of Medicine in Houston said the variant may already be in Texas, and that scientists will know soon whether current COVID-19 vaccines are effective against it. He told CNN it’s unlikely that it will be totally resistant.

“Our scientists at Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor are now looking exactly at that — our immune response to our vaccine, seeing if it cross-neutralizes omicron," he said.

Hotez added that the delta variant is still his biggest concern, and he does not fully support travel restrictions that went into effect Monday by President Joe Biden. The U.S. has banned travel to seven countries — not including Canada — which reported its first case of the new variant this weekend.

“I think the bottom line is there’s a lot we don’t know. I’m not panicking about this variant yet right now, honestly. It has accelerated in one province in South Africa, where Pretoria and Johannesburg are located — a highly urbanized province of South Africa,” Hotez told MSNBC. “It doesn’t mean it’s going to do the same anywhere else.”

Houston Methodist Hospital has not detected the omicron variant in any of its sequencing. Since the hospital is able to conduct large-scale pathogen genomic sequencing, Houston is often one of the first cities in the country to detect variants. Its health department is working to gather new information on omicron and is sharing it with Mayor Sylvester Turner, according to the mayor.

“Until we get more information the best way to keep it at arm's length is to get the vaccine. And if you’ve already gotten the vaccine, get the booster,” Turner said.

Public health authorities in Texas are still strongly urging people to vaccinate and to get boosters, especially as the holiday season closes in. About 58% of the state’s eligible population — aged 5 and older — is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Matt Harab and Paul Flahive with Houston Public Media contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Bri Kirkham