A Harris County man is confirmed to have been infected with the COVID-19 B.1.1.7 variant, the first known case in the state of Texas.
The Texas Department of State Health Services confirmed the diagnosis Thursday afternoon, saying the patient was an adult male in his 30s with no history of travel. He is said to be in stable condition and isolated and will remain there until cleared by public health officials.
“The fact that this person had no travel history suggests this variant is already circulating in Texas,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, DSHS commissioner. “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.”
The Houston-area case is being investigated by the Harris County Public Health Department and the Texas DSHS.
“Though mutations of a virus are expected, we are closely monitoring this case and any potential contacts to prevent the ongoing spread of the virus at all levels,” said Dr. Sherri Onyiego, health authority for Harris County, “The prevention measures for this strain are no different and our community should continue staying home in addition to wearing facemasks, social distancing, getting tested, and washing your hands frequently.”
The DSHS said the COVID-19 B.1.1.7 variant was first identified in the United Kingdom in the fall and appears to spread much more easily from person to person than most strains of the coronavirus.
The current scientific evidence is that the variant does not cause more severe disease and that vaccines are expected to be effective against it. It is thought to be responsible for only a small proportion of the current COVID-19 cases in Texas and the United States.
None-the-less, "This variant has the potential to throw jet fuel on an already dangerous situation," said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
Dallas County Health and Human Services Director Dr. Philip Huang said for the past couple of weeks, the county has been sending specimens to the state for testing that show stronger indicators for the new strain. So far, he said, all have been negative.
"[It's] very likely if it's not already here, it will get here at some point," said Dr. Huang.
Thursday, for the fourth day in a row, Dallas County reported a record-high number of COVID-19 related hospitalizations. There were just 17 adult ICU beds left in the county, according to the DFW Hospital Council.
The concern among health care professionals now is that the new, highly-contagious strain could push hospitals to the brink.
"So these numbers are already at critical levels and anything that's going to increase the spread in our community, when we're starting at these record level highs to begin with, is exceedingly worrisome and alarming," said Dr. Huang.
To protect yourself from the new strain, Dr. Huang says he recommends practicing the same safety protocols that have been proven to slow the spread: Wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing.