Valley health expert concerned about state's limited testing for omicron variant
Some local health experts are not surprised after the first omicron variant case was confirmed in the Rio Grande Valley.
Medical professionals, like Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez, assumed the omicron variant was already in the community as COVID-19 cases increased in December.
"I just ask people to remember the reason we're not finding more is because we're not testing more,” Dr. Melendez said. “Just to remind you that our segmentation, or analyzing exactly which type of COVID-19 strain it is, requires reference labs. It's a sophisticated study. It's not done at any of the local labs. It's done by the state."
The state of Texas is doing that segmentation procedure for a fraction of the patients that report having COVID-19, even as doctors say that treatment will differ depending on the variant. Treatment for delta is different than treatment for omicron. Some monoclonal antibodies that were effective before are not effective now.
"Ideally ten percent [testing] should be done. The United States is at 4 percent. We, in Texas, are probably closer to one percent,” Dr. Melendez said. “If you're not testing for it, you're not going to find it. So, what are we basing our assumption that it's probably omicron? It's the rapidity in which it spreads. Omicron has a history in all over the world, of the countries it's taken over, and we see that their cases are doubling every two days."
Dr. Melendez assumes the omicron variant arrived in the Valley around Dec. 15 and is now multiplying.
"It's getting better at infecting people, so it's becoming better at becoming contagious,” said Cameron County Health Authority Dr. James Castillo. “It's evolving quickly."
Health professionals are basing their guesses as to which strain it is based on how quickly it spreads, as well as symptoms.
"Scratchy throat, upper airway, night sweats, itchy eyes, profound weakness, as opposed to the lower respiratory system we were seeing with delta," said Dr. Melendez.
Melendez says the state is not doing more variant testing due to a lack of resources.
"It's a relatively sophisticated test that needs to be done in sophisticated labs, with the appropriate equipment,” Dr. Melendez said. “And so this has been a problem. We have very limited labs that can do this and we can rely on."
Melendez said he's looked into the possibility of other labs and universities to help the state do more sequencing, like UTRGV, but says the resources they would need, and the rules laid down by the state are still not making it possible.