ABC13 town hall explores omicron variant's impact in Houston area

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- With so much at stake this year, from the return of two of Houston's biggest events to the recovery of our businesses and schools, the surge in COVID-19 infections across southeast Texas feels like a step in the wrong direction.

But even as the omicron variant continues to rack up pandemic-high records for cases statewide, Houston's top doctor says the fight is different this time.

"It's a whole new set of rules," Dr. David Persse said.

The City of Houston's chief medical officer joined Eyewitness News anchor Rita Garcia for an ABC13 town hall Thursday, examining the post-holiday rise in coronavirus cases.

On Wednesday, Texas counted 59,268 new cases of COVID-19, bringing active cases to 143,731 in Houston and Harris County, and 111,895 in Fort Bend County, according to state data.

While breakthrough coronavirus cases are on the rise, Persse said state health data overwhelmingly shows the COVID-19 vaccines are working.

"Mask wearing and social distancing are extremely effective, but what is more effective is the vaccine," Persse said.

He also sounded a warning to those who have delayed or outright refused getting the vaccines: time is running out.

"Go on with your life, maybe the next week or next two weeks, but certainly at some point, somebody is going to expose you to this virus, and if you're not vaccinated, your chances of having a serious consequence are infinitely greater," Persse said.

Persse was joined by Fort Bend County Judge KP George and Dr. Laura Murillo, president of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who together answered your questions about how the omicron variant is impacting our loved ones, schools and businesses.

Here are some of the questions you asked our panel:

Q: Regina Jones wrote, "We need to shut the town down so we can start living better in Harris County." How do you respond to that suggestion, Dr. Persse?

Persse: "We're not going to be able to avoid probably everybody getting exposed to (the coronavirus) at some point or another.

The advantage of the lockdown is that it flattens the curve a little bit, spreads out how long the community faces problems, which will be helpful if your hospitals are overloaded, so that anybody who needs a hospital bed can get one.

Today, here in Houston, our hospitals are able to manage the load. We probably need to try to get through this as quickly as possible, but if the hospitals get to the point where they can't handle it, then we get collateral damage, if you will.

But there's a lot of collateral damage that comes with (lockdowns). We've seen the problems it's created with children in schools, we've seen businesses go out of business. It is a really difficult decision to make."

Q: What is your message to those who haven't received a COVID-19 vaccine yet?

Persse: "I understand that people are concerned. There's a lot of baloney that has been circulated about (the vaccines). There are no microchips, and if the government wants to follow you, they're going to follow you on your cell phone! They don't have to inject something in you to follow you.

This vaccine has been given to somewhere near 7 billion people on the planet. If there was a big problem with it, we would know that by now. Clearly, infection with the virus is far more risky than any risk there is with the vaccine."

Q: How likely is it, vaccinated or not, that someone will be infected with COVID-19 at some point?

Persse: "In your question, you use the word 'infect.' Now, you've got to be a bit careful because, I think Judge George is an excellent example. He was exposed and infected, and had he not been tested, he never would have known it, but he would have been able to spread it.

I think the answer to the question is for people who become exposed and get infected, even with no symptoms, is approaching 100% chance."

Q: Linda Garcia, in SE Houston, submitted this observation: "I see so many people walking around indoors at stores and malls without masks. Is it possible, can we enforce the mask mandate again?"

Judge George: "I am not planning to put any mask mandate in place (in Fort Bend County), and I believe in my citizens...we have these high percentages of vaccinations. Get vaccinated, follow the CDC guidelines, and I will continue to send that message, but I'm not looking into creating any kind of mandates at the moment."

Dr. Murillo: "Businesses and corporations are, in fact, imposing this where they can, and what we're also seeing is that you have large corporations, such as Southwest Airlines and others at JPMorgan Chase, who have recently said if you want to work here, we need to see your vaccination card. If you want to work here, you will mask up.

We need businesses to step up and create these opportunities for people to work in a safe environment, and keep businesses open. This is an economic imperative for keeping our economy strong. Let's get the politics out of it, and stick with the facts and science, and our pocketbooks."

Q: Is it possible the Chevron Houston Marathon will be canceled Sunday?

Persse: "I don't think so, and I don't really see a reason for it. The marathon is particularly unique as it is predominantly outdoors. It is almost exclusively very health-conscious people who are participating in it. It is run by a very health-conscious organization. We've worked with them, they have changed many, many things to make this as code safe as possible.

There is nothing that we do today that is zero risk, other than staying home by yourself, isolated, never talking to anybody. Life has to go on.

It's supposed to be pretty cold come race day, and I don't know about you, but I've noticed on cold days I kind of appreciate wearing my mask out. It keeps my face warm. But, if you want to make it even safer, yeah, wear a mask... and be smart. You know, if you're all jammed in there real close, that's probably not the best place to stand and watch the races. It's a 26-mile course; there's plenty of space to cheer on your loved one if they run."

Q: Dick Grant, of Willis asks, "Can I still get the delta variant of COVID-19 after I've had the omicron variant?"

Persse: "This is medicine, where nothing is absolute, so can you? Yeah, you probably can. It appears, however, the folks who are infected with omicron are developing some immunity towards delta, where we didn't see the reverse."

Q: There are videos surfacing online showing people who are intentionally trying to come in contact with someone who has the virus, or they're trying to catch it on purpose. Is that at all a good idea?

Persse: "No, that's not a good idea. We've seen this going back to the other pandemics in the past, and if you read the history books from when we were born, people have done this for a variety of different contagious illnesses. It's never a good idea. Your best bet is to get vaccinated, and then try to avoid the virus as best you can."

Q: I have seen growing suggestions online and heard from viewers concerned that insomnia may be an early symptom of omicron variant. Are you seeing this?

Persse: "I've not heard about insomnia in particular, but what we are seeing are more cold-like symptoms, and more upper respiratory versus delta and its predecessor. With COVID-19, we have seen every single organ system of the body, be it the skin, the intestines, the kidneys, the heart, the lungs, the brain, the spinal cord - we've seen every single organ system impacted, so if people are saying that they're experiencing insomnia, and then a day later they are COVID-positive, it doesn't surprise me in the least."

Q: Ramola Samuel, of Stafford, asks, "We are a family of six members, out of which two are senior citizens and the other two are kids. My 9-year-old is vaccinated, my 4-year-old is not vaccinated. Will my 4-year-old get infected because of my elder one who is attending school in person? Also, in August 2021, my whole family was COVID-19 positive after my child got infected in school. So can we get infected again, and is it wise to send my child to attend school in person?"

Persse: "It's possible, even though the older one is vaccinated. We are still seeing that some vaccinated people are becoming infected. They tend to have very mild illness, but they can still spread it, and so the answer to the question is, yeah, that could happen. Make sure the whole family is vaccinated, and pay close attention to mild symptoms. Get tested right away, and then test regularly even without symptoms.

Children being out of school has its own consequences that we've come to painfully learn. I can't make that decision for you, but there is a risk of going to school. School districts are using different strategies, but they're trying really hard to make it safe for the kids to go to school, and for the staff, the teachers and everyone else."

Q: Brandon Hunter, of Houston, asks, "Why would I want or need a test? Shouldn't I be more concerned about getting better if I'm feeling ill than possibly testing positive? The omicron variant is spreading so rapidly, it seems that tests are pointless and a waste of time."

Persse: "One big reason is that we know that a lot of people are infected and have no symptoms, whatsoever, so if you're waiting for the symptoms to let you know that you're ill, by the time you develop symptoms, you've been spreading virus for about two days, so you're two days too late to find out.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of up to 40% of people are infected with no symptoms whatsoever, so that's why it's important that people get tested on a regular basis."

Q: Any predictions on where we'll be when RodeoHouston arrives?

Persse: "It's a bit complicated. We look to other countries and we look to South Africa, we are looking at our European nations, we look at New York City. We're seeing this very high rapid increase in cases, we're seeing that here locally, we're about two weeks behind New York and France, and the UK and Denmark. So we're seeing this very high spike, and then in South Africa, we saw it come down again.

If the projections are right, the rodeo will probably occur during a valley (in infections), and that's what I'm hoping for. Also, remember, a lot of things at the rodeo are, you know, a lot of it's outdoors. I've got high hopes that we're going to have a pretty successful rodeo this year, based on the timing and all the mitigation they've already put in place."

You can watch the town hall on your favorite streaming devices, like Roku, FireTV, AppleTV and Google TV. Just search "ABC13 Houston."

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