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COVID-19 omicron variant detected in Houston wastewater

The variant was found in eight of the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants.

HOUSTON — The omicron variant of COVID-19 has been detected in Houston wastewater, according to the city's health department.

It's the first time it has been detected in the wastewater, but the city has not reported any positive cases yet. 

When was it collected?

Samples that were taken on Nov. 29 and Nov. 30 showed the variant in eight of the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants, including W.C.I.D. #111, Chocolate Bayou, Keegans Bayou, Metro Central, Northgate, Sims Bayou North, Turkey Creek, and West District. The confirmation was received Monday.

RELATED: Houston Health Department testing wastewater weekly to track COVID-19 variants

"The Houston Health Department and Houston Water continue to do an exceptional job tracking the impact of the virus in our community. While no specific case of the omicron variant has been confirmed in an individual in the city of Houston, we should use this information as a reminder to get fully vaccinated, including a booster shot," Mayor Sylvester Turner said. "Vaccines help protect us, our loved ones, friends, and colleagues in the work environment. As the holidays approach, I encourage everyone to remain vigilant about their health and safety."

RELATED: Woman in NW Harris County tests positive for omicron COVID variant, Judge Hidalgo says

Earlier Monday, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo reported that a woman in her 40s tested positive for the omicron variant. The state's health department said it was the first reported case in the state.

Why are experts concerned?

The short answer is some of what we do know is not good. According to research out of South Africa, the omicron COVID variant is at least three times more likely to cause reinfection than delta. That means the omicron mutation appears to allow it to infect people that already have immunity from a previous COVID infection. That could explain how omicron is spreading.

Scientists believe vaccines are still the most effective protection against severe disease and death, but researchers do believe omicron will make vaccines less effective thanks to how many mutations it has and the types of mutations it has.

U.S. health officials said Sunday that while the omicron variant of the coronavirus is rapidly spreading throughout the country, early indications suggest it may be less dangerous than delta, which continues to drive a surge of hospitalizations.

President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN's "State of the Union" that scientists need more information before drawing conclusions about omicron's severity.

"Thus far, it does not look like there's a great degree of severity to it," Fauci said. "But we have really got to be careful before we make any determinations that it is less severe or it really doesn't cause any severe illness, comparable to delta."

Omicron had been detected in about a third of U.S. states by Sunday, including in the Northeast, the South, the Great Plains and the West Coast. Wisconsin and Missouri were among the latest states to confirm cases.

But delta remains the dominant variant, making up more than 99% of cases and driving a surge of hospitalizations in the north. National Guard teams have been sent to help overwhelmed hospitals in western New York, and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker issued an emergency order requiring any hospitals facing limited patient capacity to reduce scheduled procedures that are not urgent.

Map of COVID-19 levels in Houston's wastewater

The city takes samples from all over Houston, including manholes outside certain Houston schools.  Below is the interactive map. You can see it in a separate window here.

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