The news had already begun spreading throughout the world when Texans gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving last week. There’s yet another variant of the COVID-19 virus — one that is more transmissible than any previous strain. First identified in South Africa, the Omicron variant has already been detected in countries across the world, including the UK, Hong Kong, and Australia. And, as of Sunday, Canadian officials announced that it’s now in North America.
Plenty is still unknown about the highly infectious Omicron, but one thing’s for sure: Gov. Greg Abbott’s anti-science stance towards the pandemic has, yet again, put millions of Texans in harm’s way. Below, we’ve broken down the biggest things to know about the new variant and how it could impact communities across the state.
What we know about Omicron
Because the new variant has emerged so rapidly, there’s still a limited amount of available information about it. But from what epidemiologists can tell, the Omicron’s specific mutations make it more transmissible than any previous strain of COVID-19. It also appears capable of slipping past bodily immune defenses and protections from vaccines, meaning that there could be a greater amount of breakthrough cases in the coming months. Furthermore, early evidence from the WHO suggests that Omicron may carry a greater “risk of reinfection” than past strains. In other words, those who have previously been sick with COVID could be at risk once more.
As experts like Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, have suggested, there is some initial hope that Omicron could be less deadly than past variants. Coetzee said that those infected with Omicron have largely complained about exhaustion, fatigue, headaches, and body aches for a few days. “Currently, there is no reason for panicking, as we don’t see severely ill patients,” she told the Telegraph on Sunday.
Still, many public health experts are warning that unvaccinated people could face much greater health risks. For now, we simply know too little about Omicron to make any grand conclusions yet.
It’s officially in North America — and probably the U.S.
On Sunday, Canadian officials announced that two Omicron cases had been discovered in the east-central province of Ontario. While these represented the new variant’s official arrival into North America, U.S. doctors say that Omicron has likely already begun spreading throughout America. That’s not surprising, given the fact that epidemiologists have concluded that the original strain of COVID-19 was probably in the U.S. before Christmas 2019, long before it was formally acknowledged or detected here.
The question is, what does that mean for Texas? In short: Not good.
Abbott’s callousness and incompetence will cost thousands of more lives in Texas
Throughout the pandemic, Gov. Greg Abbott has shown time and again that he values right-wing anti-science talking points over the lives of his constituents. The Republican has done seemingly everything he can to put Texans at risk, including pushing misinformation, suing school districts over life-saving mask mandates, and passing executive orders against vaccine mandates. Rather than protecting his people, the governor has politicized the pandemic every step of the way.
The consequences of Abbott’s decisions have been nothing short of tragic. Nearly 74,000 Texans have died from COVID-19, which is just barely behind California for the most in the country. (Note: California has roughly ten million more residents than Texas.) Only 54 percent of residents are fully vaccinated. And hospitals are continuing to struggle to keep up with a near-constant flow of severe COVID cases, the majority of which involve unvaccinated people.
The looming arrival of Omicron could be drastic for Texas. During its late-summer surge, the highly infectious Delta variant ripped through communities so quickly that hospitals across the state ran out of available ICU beds. At one point, there were only two open beds in the Greater Austin area, which encompasses 2.3 million people across 11 counties. The same could certainly happen with Omicron, especially if vaccination rates stay where they’re at. After all, even if the new variant is in fact less lethal — something doctors have yet to confirm — unvaccinated Texans are 40 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who are inoculated. And as of this writing, more than ten million people here have yet to get their shots.
For now, all Texans can do is wait for more information about Omicron’s presence here and the severity of its symptoms. One thing’s for certain, though. The new variant will hit our communities. And when it does, the governor must be held accountable for his dereliction of duty. He’s neglected public health directives. He’s rejected science. And he’s stoked vaccine hesitancy. The man’s got blood on his hands — and we can’t forget it come November 2022.