U.S. health officials have reported the country’s first death attributed to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus—a man in his 50s from Texas. The man was unvaccinated but had previously survived a covid-19 infection; he also had underlying health conditions.
Omicron has quickly circulated around the world since scientists in South Africa were the first to identify it in late November. Even before the Omicron variant emerged in the U.S., however, the country had been facing a resurgence of the pandemic, following a lull since the summer. Hospitalizations and deaths have increased and remained at stubbornly high levels, with over 1,000 deaths reported daily on average this month. All of these recent hospitalizations and deaths had been caused by the Delta variant, at least up until now.
The Omicron-related death was reported late Monday afternoon by officials from the Harris County Public Health department. The victim was in his 50s. Both his unvaccinated status and existing health conditions placed him at higher risk for severe covid-19, officials said.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the patient’s family, and we extend our deepest sympathies,” said Barbie Robinson, HCPH Executive Director, in a statement from the agency.
Several lines of evidence have suggested that Delta is more likely to cause severe illness than past strains. Conversely, early data from South Africa and other countries has indicated that Omicron may cause milder illness on average. However, many experts caution that this data isn’t a clear indication yet that Omicron is an intrinsically milder virus than before, since many people in the world have some amount of immunity, due to past infection and/or vaccination.
It’s possible that the risk of severe illness will remain the same for people not exposed to the coronavirus until now. And many experts fear that because Omicron is able to spread rapidly even among largely vaccinated populations, its sheer transmission speed could compensate for its milder presentation and still lead to surges of hospitalizations and deaths, at least in the short term.
Cities and countries have begun to respond to Omicron’s emergence by restituting containment measures, though to varying degrees. This week, the Biden administration announced the delivery of free rapid tests to Americans—an idea they once mocked—though these tests will not be available until after the holidays. In the meantime, likely the best individual step you can take to stay safe is to get vaccinated if you haven’t already, and to get a booster shot if you were vaccinated more than six months ago.
“This is a reminder of the severity of covid-19 and its variants. We urge all residents who qualify to get vaccinated and get their booster shot if they have not already,” Robinson said.