The variant of COVID-19 ravaging India in recent months has been detected in Galveston County, according to the University of Texas Medical Branch.
Although the variant poses a threat to unvaccinated people, health officials don’t expect a sweeping outbreak such as seen in India and note research shows vaccines administered in the United States are effective against the strain that has brought India’s public health system to its knees as hospitals run out of beds and where there isn’t enough life-saving oxygen or critical medical supplies for COVID patients.
The medical branch in the past two weeks has identified two cases of patients with the variant known as B.1.617.2, said Dr. Janak Patel, director of infection control and healthcare epidemiology at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
Both people who tested positive for the variant were Galveston County residents, Patel said. Neither of them had traveled to India or other places where the variant is prevalent, which mean it’s likely that the variant is spreading in local communities, Patel said.
“They have no history of travel to India or contact with people from India,” Patel said.
The fast-spreading COVID-19 variant has caused one of the worst medical disasters of the pandemic in India. In recent days, the country has reported as many as 4,000 people dying from the virus in a single day and daily new cases have been as high as 400,000 people.
That the variant has reached Texas isn’t surprising, Patel said. Other major variant strains of the virus have appeared locally. In March, the UK variant of the virus actually became the prevalent strain locally, Patel said.
“It’s disconcerting but not surprising,” Patel said. “Every variant imported from around the globe we have found it eventually, including in our own population.”
The UK, Brazilian, South African and Californian strains of the virus all have been reported in Trauma Service Area R, a nine-county region that includes Galveston County, according to the state Department of State Health Services.
Virus mutations worry some public health experts because of their ability to spread more quickly and easily than earlier strains of the virus. Mutated virus strains aren’t necessarily more fatal, but they can create fast-spreading outbreaks that are harder to control, and they can lead to more people getting sick, increasing the possibility of serious cases and death.
Research has indicated that COVID vaccines used in the United States are effective against variants that have emerged in recent months, Patel said.
But with large numbers of people in Galveston County and in Texas still unvaccinated, the variants still pose a threat local residents. As of Wednesday, 126,998 Galveston County residents were fully vaccinated agains the virus, according to the state health department.
About 44 percent of the county’s population older than age 12 had been vaccinated, according to the health department.
“We have uneven vaccination rates across our community,” Patel said. “We still have a large chunk that is vulnerable. We still have a potential for a problem from these variants coming in. Granted, we don’t think it will be as big a tragedy as is unfolding in India.”
New cases of COVID-19 in Galveston County have been identified at a decreasing rate since peaking in early January. From May 9 to May 15, the Galveston County Health District recorded only 262 new cases in the county, the lowest weekly total since October. About 7 percent of COVID-19 tests collected last week were positive, according to the health district.