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As omicron numbers subside, health officials eye new sub-variant detected in Texas

Omicron cases have reached their peak in Austin, but a new offshoot could cause another spike in the area. (St. David's Health Center/Facebook)

Austin seems to have passed its fourth COVID peak, but public health leaders are already monitoring a new omicron-related variant that was recently detected in Texas.

Just as quickly as it came, the omicron variant that shuttered schools, businesses and holiday gatherings is finally receding, Austin-Travis County Health Authority Desmar Walkes said Friday. According to a University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium projections, the variant's caseload peaked on Jan. 9 in the Austin-Round Rock area.

But Austin Public Health is already looking to the new variation of it, dubbed the BA. 2 omicron variant, as it spreads to 40 countries including the U.S. Similar to the original "BA.1" omicron strain, the new variety shares most of omicron's characteristics but has 20 key mutations from the original. Walkes said the variant has over 80 mutations and appears to be more transmissible than the original omicron strain, though vaccines appear to behave similarly in protecting residents from serious complications.

The variant has been found in dozens of countries and is surpassing case numbers for the BA.1 omicron strain in Denmark, though researchers have so far found no difference in hospitalizations between the two omicron variants. The World Health Organization classifies all omicron strains as "variants of concern" but hasn't specified between the two.

Chief epidemiologist Janet Pichette said that while BA.2 will act similarly to its parent variant, the strain's transmissibility could cause a new spike in the area.

"We're at a critical point right now," Pichette said. "This new variant has been identified in Texas with three cases in the Houston area, so odds are that it's circulating around us right now."

For now, Pichette said cases are on the "downhill slide," while ICU admissions are expected to peak in the first week of February. With a 100% household transmission rate so far, Walkes said it's more crucial than ever to vaccinate children over five and protect other vulnerable members of the community.

"This new variant spreads more quickly and because of that we're going to see an impact on the general population," Walkes said. "It's going to find the vulnerable, and in this case it's going to affect the unvaccinated and those who cannot get vaccinated."


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