Doctor: Highly contagious COVID-19 strain may already be in Central Texas

Coronavirus

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — A man living in Harris County became the first known person in Texas to get infected by the “more contagious” B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19, and doctors think it could already be in Central Texas.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported the man had no history of travel and that results of genetic sequencing have shown the infection was caused by the B.1.1.7 variant, first found in the United Kingdom.

“The fact that this person had no travel history suggests this variant is already circulating in Texas,” Dr. John Hellerstedt, the DSHS commissioner, said in a statement. “Genetic variations are the norm among viruses, and it’s not surprising that it arrived here given how rapidly it spreads. This should make us all redouble our commitment to the infection prevention practices that we know work: masks any time you’re around people you don’t live with, social distancing, and personal and environmental hygiene.”

During a news conference Thursday afternoon, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the man infected by this COVID-19 variant is in his 30s or 40s and lives in the southwestern part of the county. She said he is currently isolated, and his contacts are being traced.

Some doctors say they would be surprised if the virus isn’t already in Central Texas. Austin Public Health said Friday it has not been made aware of the variant in the area, but continued to urge people to social distance, wear masks and avoid gathering.

“The things that can protect us from a surge of COVID-19 also protect from a surge of the new variant,” APH wrote in a statement. “Regardless of the variant of the virus, it is important that we protect ourselves and our community until the vaccine has been administered to those most at risk of serious disease and death from this virus.”

With strained hospital systems and lines of people still waiting to get a vaccine, the variant could make a dire situation worse.

“It’s really been challenging,” Deborah Copeland explained.

Copeland says the last few weeks haven’t been easy as she waits to get the COVID-19 vaccine in Phase 1B. She still hasn’t received her first shot and now with another variant of the virus in Texas, her concerns are growing.

“Maybe we do have to do like some people and just literally stay in the house. A virus is invisible; you can do the best you can do, but science is science,” Copeland said.

The good news: doctors say there’s no evidence this variant is more severe. The bad news: it spreads rapidly, driving even more people to already-strained hospitals.

“I would be astounded if it wasn’t all over. We don’t have the capability of properly testing all the variants of coronavirus isolates,” said Dr. Charles Lerner, a Texas Medical Association COVID-19 task force member.

Lerner says the virus has been mutating from the start and researchers already knew the variant would eventually show up in some form of testing.

The symptoms for this mutation are the same, but with faster transmission, the surge in cases following the holidays could be even greater.

“So we can expect to see this infection exploding until we get everybody immunized,” Lerner said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that an unusually large number of mutations have been found around the world, including the U.S. and Canada, and scientists are working to learn more about COVID variant strains.

The CDC said the B.1.1.7 variant is estimated to have emerged in the United Kingdom in September last year, and indicators suggest this variant is “more efficient” at rapid transmission. However, experts believe the current vaccine is effective against this strain.

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