This city has all the COVID variants as health officials declare, "The race is on" for vaccinations

Today is the day – Texas is fully reopening. Governor Abbott’s order goes into effect today. Businesses may fully reopen and there is no more statewide mask mandate. Just in case anyone gets too giddy about this milestone, there is news that the most contagious of the COVID variants is spreading in Texas. Curb your enthusiasm, Texas.

Houston is the first city to report the presence of all of the known COVID variants. That’s not really a distinction that any city wants. The U.K. variant is the most contagious variant and is spreading in Houston. Public health officials are concerned that Texans will let down their guard and not continue to follow coronavirus mitigation measures until the majority of the state’s residents are vaccinated.

We are at the one-year anniversary of being told that hospitals and medical facilities needed a two-week shutdown across the country to flatten the curve. We were told that hospitals and medical staff would be overwhelmed without a brief disruption to our way of life. We all know how that has worked out and here we are. People are desperate to find the light at the end of the tunnel. Just when Texans see some hope, that little bit of optimism is being tamped down.

City officials in Houston sample sewage for traces of the virus. The virus can be detected days before those infected show any symptoms. Health officials are pleading with residents to continue to mask up, social distance, and continue frequent hand washing. Also, get vaccinated as soon as you are able to do so.

Last month, city officials who sample sewage for traces of the virus detected the B.1.1.7 variant at 31 of the city’s 39 wastewater treatment plants, up from 21 plants earlier in the month. A study published last Wednesday estimated the variant, which was first discovered in the United Kingdom, is 43 to 90 percent more infectious than previous variants.

About 19 percent of wastewater samples contained the more contagious variant when it was most recently sampled on Feb. 22, according to a city news release.

“The prevalence of the U.K. variant in our wastewater shows it’s actively spreading in our city,” said David Persse, the city’s public health authority. “This is another clear indication that we must continue to mask up, practice social distancing, wash our hands, get tested and get vaccinated when possible.”

Houston’s positivity rates are edging back up. The rate went to 13.1 percent last week, an increase from the 11.9 percent rate the week before. During the winter storm, the rate was 11.2 percent. Mayor Turner asks that everyone continue to wear a mask in public, at the minimum. Health officials continue to test the city’s wastewater for the virus.

Houston health officials have tested the city’s wastewater for COVID since May through a partnership with Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. Traces of the coronavirus remain in human feces, even for those who do not have symptoms, allowing city officials to find virus hots pots and measure its true spread with greater precision.

Sample results for other more contagious variants, including those first detected in South Africa, Brazil and California, remain pending, city officials said.

“To some degree, the race is on,” Persse said. “The race is on to get as many people vaccinated as possible before the U.K. variant is able to take over and cause us to have another surge.”

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly provided a learning opportunity for areas of science that many of us would not have learned otherwise. The use of wastewater, for example, for monitoring the virus was new information for me. This method shows that the U.K. variant is quickly spreading through Houston.

Analysis of wastewater – toilet water that travels through a drainage system to a treatment facility – has been used for years to track a number of public health concerns.

Sewage surveillance is currently used in several countries to monitor poliovirus circulation, including Israel and India. It’s also been used in several cities in Europe to track the spread of opioids.

Researchers have found that infected people shed viruses, or viral genetic material, in their urine and stool.

Scientists believe this surveillance system could provide better estimate of how far the disease is spreading because this would include people who have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.

Public officials are making pleas – stay vigilant against the coronavirus. It’s Spring Break season and there is a worry that superspreader events will occur. The public is being told it is up to everyone to ensure that personal responsibility is used until everyone is vaccinated. Dr. Robert Atmar, a professor of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine warns that personal vigilance has to stay in place even as the state reopens and Texans feel a sense of optimism.