First death due to Omicron variant reported in U.S.

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

The first death in the United States from the Omicron variant is believed to be a man in Houston, Texas. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo confirmed the man’s death on Monday.

The deceased is a 50-something-year-old man who was unvaccinated and had an underlying medical condition. Data released by the CDC on Monday shows that the Omicron variant accounts for 73.2% of new cases reported last week ending on December 18. On December 8 I wrote that Omicron was likely “prevalent and spreading” in Houston according to the Texas Department of State Health Services and Harris County Public Health. The first case in Harris County was reported on December 7 and the agencies began an investigation. That patient was reported to be a forty-something-year-old woman with no recent travel history. At that time, eight of 39 wastewater treatment plant samples showed the presence of the Omicron variant. Omicron spreads a lot quicker than the Delta variant so, sadly, it is to be expected that deaths will be announced as more cases are detected. This man’s underlying medical condition likely increased the possibility of a bad result since he was not vaccinated. To put it indelicately, he was a prime candidate for a bad outcome.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced on Monday: “My phone was ringing, I’m sure you guys noticed, and it was our public health director telling me we just had our first Omicron-related death.”

The unidentified man lived in Precinct 2 of Harris County, the officials said.

Ms Hidalgo said: “I know, for folks in Harris County, this feels like whiplash. It follows a downward trend in hospitalizations and cases, only to see things trend back up, and it is so frustrating.”

Health authorities said on Monday that Omicron is now the dominant variant in the United States even as the World Health Organisation (WHO) called for greater efforts to ensure the pandemic ends soon.

“Omicron is spreading incredibly quickly. First, we know that an increasing number of cases in Harris County are related to Omicron. It’s more transmissible. The amount of time it takes for the number of Omicron cases to double has been very worrisome,” Ms Hidalgo said.

She said that the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data had revealed that the Omicron variant doubles in two to three days. “Just to give a point of comparison, the Delta variant doubles every eleven days,” she added.

Earlier Monday, Hidalgo raised the Covid-19 alert back to orange, advising locals to “minimize all contacts unless vaccinated.” Since the variant was first discovered, going back to more strident mitigation measures is how many cities and states are reacting. In Houston, doctors anticipate the highly transmissible variant to take hold in the coming months. One-third of Texans are not vaccinated. The doctors are particularly concerned that the virus will sweep through Houston rapidly due to the holiday season. An increase in social gatherings may help spread the virus more quickly.

Most concerning to Dr. Wesley Long, medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist, is the sheer number of new cases being reported and the overall percentage of positive COVID tests. Those two metrics, used by experts to gauge how quickly the virus is spreading within the community, are rising in lockstep — with eye-popping speed.

“It just looks like a rocket,” Long said Monday of the latest charts showing the near-vertical ascent of new cases.

The daily average of positive cases in the Texas Medical Center saw a ten-fold increase in the past two weeks, from about 230 a day in early December to more than 2,000 each day last week. The sharp rise in infections led Hidalgo to raise Harris County’s threat level to “significant” on Monday.

Since the COVID-19 vaccines became available, we have been encouraged to get vaccinated as the best way to avoid infection. With the presence of variants, we know that frequent breakthrough cases spread the virus, too. The Omicron variant is the most successful variant so far to “evade the immune response we have developed through vaccination and natural immunity,” according to Dr. Pedro A. Piedra, a virologist at Baylor College of Medicine.

We’re in for a whole new wave of COVID panic from public officials and community leaders. Already holiday celebrations and events are being canceled at the last minute, throwing patrons and businesses into chaos. Cast and crew members of local productions of plays have tested positive with breakthrough cases of the virus, for example, and those family activities are coming to a halt. I’ve been reading about closures of Broadway shows and other entertainment venues due to COVID concerns. There is a whole lot of deja-vu in the air.

Restaurants and bars are scrambling, too, all over again. For those trying to find a way to remain open for inside dining, many are finding customers are canceling reservations out of fear of infection. Other dining establishments are shortening hours which is a loss of income for both the staff and the owner.

Graham Laborde, the co-owner of Winnie’s, should be counting the holiday cash streaming into his restaurant in Midtown. But on Monday, he was too busy calling customers to cancel reservations.

Winnie’s, decorated to the hilt for Miracle Bar, a national pop-up that pairs over-the-top Christmas décor with holiday-themed cocktails, closed at 8 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday — four hours early. The restaurant will continue to run reduced hours as COVID-19 infections keep several employees out of work.

“The Christmas spirit is quickly evaporating,” said Laborde, who has made hundreds of phone calls to alert guests with reservations affected by the modified hours. “When you tell them their Christmas plans are canceled it’s a bummer all the way around.”

Sporting events are being canceled, too, because of players testing positive for COVID. A variant that spreads so quickly won’t help that situation any time soon.

Part of the problem with the pandemic has been with us from the beginning. It’s the lack of certainty from the people who are supposed to be the experts in viruses. The vaccines were a relief to many of us as we lived with strict lockdown orders and avoided human contact with anyone not living in our homes. The latest variant has freaked out the professionals, though, under most circumstances so far, symptoms are more like severe colds than the original virus. Yet, the experts can’t come together and agree on what we are supposed to do. CDC and Fauci say to go about your holiday plans but preferably only with vaccinated family and friends. WHO announced that they recommend canceling Christmas again this year. This is nuts. As Jazz wrote earlier, we are over it. Most people will ignore the experts and live their lives. The vaccines don’t work as well as we hoped. Boosters may or may not be the answer, we don’t know. It’s all a personal choice. Mandates from the federal government are wrong (and unconstitutional, in my opinion) and no one should be shamed for making a personal choice for a medical decision. At this point, everyone knows the risks. Make your decisions on mitigation actions and go about your life.

Houston is a large blue city. The authoritarians in charge have been given free rein for too long. The worst of their impulses are surfacing all over again. Hidalgo raised the health alert color code before the death was reported yesterday. We’ll see it happening all around the country as the Omicron variant spreads.