East Texas health leaders worry variants could lead to new surge in cases, hospitalizations

Health officials say they wouldn’t be surprised if variants were already circulating in East Texas

Virus Variant Surveillance

TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - Disease surveillance efforts are being stepped up as attention turns to new variants of COVID-19. East Texas health leaders are concerned that the mutations could lead to another possible spike in cases and hospitalizations. And while none of the variants have been detected in East Texas so far, they say it wouldn’t surprise them to find out they’re already here.

“Mutations to viruses is like having cousins, or brothers and sisters,” said Russell Hopkins with the Northeast Texas Public Health District. “They all came from the same place, but they’re a little bit different.”

Variants circulating around the world include mutations from the U.K., Brazil, and South Africa.

Smith County Health Authority Dr. Paul McGaha says vaccines currently available are still being tested against the new strains.

“It appears the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine still work against the new variants,” he said. “The South African variant: it works, but to a lesser degree. So all in all, it’s something that we really need to watch closely moving forward.”

McGaha said along with concerns over the vaccine’s power against the variants, early research indicates some mutations could spread faster and possibly result in more severe illness.

And while hospitalization rates have been falling in the Tyler-Longview area, the chief medical officer for CHRISTUS Health, Dr. Mark Anderson, said these new variants could lead to another surge, even with vaccination efforts.

“Not enough of the population has had the vaccine,” he said. “There’s still pretty significant risks. Particularly when we think about this next surge, this is going to spread pretty rapidly throughout the public.”

Anderson went on to say, “we’ll pray for the best and plan for the worst.”

Variants of the virus are detected in a process called genome sequencing. This is only conducted on a certain number of select samples. In an effort to increase disease surveillance, a higher number of samples are being sent to Austin for testing, according to McGaha.

So far, the only mutation to be detected in Texas is the U.K. variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health leaders agree that if the virus isn’t spreading, it can’t mutate, meaning mitigation measures and efforts to vaccinate people will help.

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