Update: This is a developing story that will continue to be updated. Updated at 5 p.m. Dec. 9 with information from state health officials.
Two cases of the omicron variant have been detected in North Texas by a Frisco lab, just days after Texas’ first case of the new coronavirus strain was identified in the Houston area.
The Texas Department of State Health Services, which investigates and verifies variant cases, confirmed the cases.
Identified by Ayass Bioscience on Wednesday, the cases involve a 35-year-old and a 40-year-old. Neither patient has a recent travel history. The 40-year-old, a man living in Plano, reported mild symptoms, while the 35-year-old patient, who knew he had been exposed to the virus, reported no symptoms.
The cases were first reported Wednesday night by KTVT-TV (Channel 11).
Both men received the Pfizer vaccine, but neither got a booster dose, said Dr. Mohamad Ayass, president and founder of Ayass Bioscience. Pfizer announced Wednesday that a third dose of its COVID-19 vaccine may protect against the new variant even though the two initial doses appear less effective.
The detection of the omicron variant in North Texas is not a surprise, said Dr. James Cutrell, associate professor of medicine in the Department of Infectious Diseases and Geographic Medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
“I think we all know this was inevitable and that it was going to be coming,” he said. “It really emphasizes the importance of continuing to encourage people to get vaccinated. For those who haven’t gotten vaccinated, the time is now for them to get their first shot.”
The state health services agency, Collin County and Tarrant County were informed Wednesday night, said Ayass, whose company specializes in genomic sequencing and laboratory testing for various illnesses.
Collin County Health Care Services confirmed Thursday that the 40-year-old patient tested positive for the new variant. “At this time, it is the only lab-confirmed case of the omicron variant in Collin County,” said Darrell Willis, public information officer for the county’s health care services department.
A Tarrant County Public Health official said the department is in the process of reviewing the case of the 35-year-old man.
The first omicron case in Texas was detected in Harris County on Monday. There, a 40-year-old woman with no recent travel history tested positive for the variant, according to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
The woman is fully vaccinated and experienced COVID-19 symptoms, according to the Harris County Public Health Department. She has not required hospitalization.
“The fact that the patient did not have a travel history means she picked it up in the community. So it’s here, it has been here probably for a week or two,” said Catherine Troisi, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
Houston Methodist hospital said Wednesday that it has identified eight omicron cases through genomic sequencing. The city of Houston has also detected the new variant in eight of its wastewater treatment facilities.
The omicron variant, first detected in South Africa, appears to have more than 30 mutations in the coronavirus’ spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to people.
After the omicron variant was identified in Houston, but before the North Texas cases were detected, Dr. Philip Huang, director and health authority for Dallas County Health and Human Services, encouraged residents to get vaccinated and to receive their COVID-19 booster shots.
He said residents should continue following coronavirus-related precautions, including social distancing, washing hands and wearing face coverings.
Huang urged people to consider family members who are at high risk for severe symptoms of COVID-19 and vaccination status before traveling for the holidays.
“We continue to work with the state to monitor for omicron and we also continue to get vaccinations out to the community and promote prevention messages to do everything we can to try to slow the spread of the virus,” Huang said.
Just last week, a person in California who had been vaccinated against COVID-19 became the first in the U.S. to have an identified case of the omicron variant. Scientists continue to study the risks posed by the new virus strain. Additional cases have been reported in at least 20 U.S. states and more than 50 countries.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told reporters that the person in California was a traveler who returned from South Africa on Nov. 22 and tested positive Nov. 29. Fauci said the person had been vaccinated but had not received a booster shot and was experiencing “mild symptoms.”
It’s still unclear whether the genetic changes in the new variant will pose a public health threat. Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially alarmed scientists but didn’t end up spreading very far.
Fauci told President Joe Biden it would take about two more weeks before there was more information on the transmissibility, severity and other characteristics of the variant, but said he believed vaccines would continue to provide a degree of protection, The Washington Post reported.
Some experts have warned against panicking about the new variant. Cecilia Tomori, director of global public health and community health at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, said Americans should first be worried about the continued spread of the delta variant.
Delta has become the dominant variant in the U.S., accounting for more than 99% of all new cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We are not adequately concerned by how bad our current surge is,” Tomori said. “We haven’t been adequately concerned about where we’ve been, which is a very high case number per day and a very high number of hospitalizations and deaths for a very, very long time.”
She said she hopes concern over the omicron variant will push people to implement strategies to prevent coronavirus transmission, like getting vaccinated.