Could the omicron variant cause another surge in Austin-Travis County?


AUSTIN (KXAN) — As cases of the omicron variant continue to pop up across the United States, many are wondering if the new variant, first discovered in South Africa, is going to overpower delta.

While the exact transmission rate of omicron is unknown right now, Dr. Desmar Walkes, the local health authority, told local leaders this week it “seems to be spreading more rapidly.” Health leaders believe omicron may spread faster than even the delta variant.

Will it force us into another spike in Central Texas, similar to the delta variant? The associate director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium said omicron aside, they were already worried.

“In the U.S. right now we’re in the midst of a winter surge, the early kind of component of that, and if we look back to last year what we saw in Austin is that the winter surge that started in other regions wound up coming here as well,” Dr. Spencer Fox, the associate director of the consortium, said.

“So the double concern on top of that is that omicron could potentially exacerbate the surge that we already feel may come,” Fox said.

Researchers saw omicron coming

University of Texas researchers were already looking at hospital admission projections in case another highly transmissible variant made its way through Austin-Travis County.

Risk-based models projections
Projected COVID-19 hospital admissions in the Austin-Round Rock MSA through February 2022, with a hypothesized variant that is 2.5 times as transmissible as pre-Delta variants (roughly 50% more transmissible than Delta). Top plot uses least restrictive metrics for guidelines, bottom uses the most strict (Courtesy APH)

Those projections were used last month to help Austin-Travis County health leaders switch up the metrics used to determine COVID-19 risk based guidelines. The area is still in Stage 3 as a result.

The plots to the left show hospital admission projections for a new variant that mirrors the delta variant but is 50% more transmissible.

The projections show if the area moved to a less restrictive tier of the guidelines, one that allowed the public to go without masks indoors and gather in large groups, the area could possibly see a dramatic winter surge. Some of the individual projections even showed a surge higher than any we’ve seen to this point.

At its most rudimentary level, the projections overall showed the more people continue to wear masks and not gather in groups as a result of the guidelines in place, the less likely a new variant would create a quick and sharp peak in hospitalizations.

As the guidelines stand right now in Austin-Travis County, people who are unvaccinated are still asked to wear a mask whenever they enter a public space. For people who are fully vaccinated, the guidelines are less restrictive.

How to best protect yourself

Local health leaders have said the best way to protect yourself right now is to keep doing the things we’ve been doing for the better part of two years: get vaccinated, social distance, wash your hands, wear a mask.

Health leaders are especially encouraging the community to get booster shots right now and to get fully vaccinated if you’re eligible.

“It’s still the same measures that we have been using all along to protect ourselves,” Dr. Desmar Walkes, the local health authority, said.

You can find a vaccine through the City of Austin on their website.

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