Coronavirus

North Texas Experts Fear a 'Perfect Storm' Will Drive Post-Holiday COVID-19 Surge

The omicron variant's presence at holiday gathering's could drive a new virus surge.
The omicron variant's presence at holiday gathering's could drive a new virus surge. Wiki Commons
Dr. Erin Carlson was "horrified" to learn that unvaccinated people had regularly been visiting her 84-year-old father, who suffers from kidney failure and other underlying conditions, without masks. 

When Carlson, a professor of public health at the University of Texas at Arlington, asked her elderly mother why they'd been allowing such risky interactions, her mother said that, in part, she was nervous about confronting unvaccinated guests.

Coronavirus protections have become a touchy subject among many families like the Carlsons as masks and vaccinations have evolved from a public health measure into a marker of political identity.

"In public health, we always knew we'd see a pandemic eventually. The surprise is that people are rejecting vaccinations," Carlson said. 

Carlson warned that the timing of the holidays, along with the recent emergence of the highly contagious omicron variant and people's waning patience with pandemic-induced isolation from family, may drive a surge in COVID-19 cases after the holidays.

"You don't have to say, 'I would like you to wear this [mask]. You can just put it on someone else and say 'I'm sorry, this is doctor's orders.'" - Erin Carlson

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"This is a perfect storm we're headed into," she said. 

Omicron is already spreading fast across the country. The CDC announced this week that it has overtaken other variants as the leading cause of the virus, accounting for about 73% of the U.S.'s cases from last week.

On Monday, the World Health Organization warned against assuming that omicron is milder than other COVID-19 variants, such as delta. Although some doctors have said it may be milder, they also say it's too early to be certain and that vaccines may not protect as well against the new variant.

Since COVID-19 first hit in early 2020, the virus has killed more than 5,700 people in Dallas County, as of Tuesday.

At Houston Methodist Hospital, the variant accounted for 82% of the hospital's symptomatic patients as of Friday. Dr. Wesley Long of Houston Methodist told Houston Public Media that omicron is most likely the predominant strain in that part of the state.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said the county doesn't have data on omicron-driven cases yet, but he emphasized that families should still take extra precautions if they're gathering this year even if some relatives aren't all on the same page.

"It's tough to have those conversations with family," Jenkins acknowledged. Both he and Carlson suggested offsetting the responsibility for masking and getting vaccine boosters on doctors, if a confrontation seems likely.

"Then it's not a confrontation about 'I think we should vote for Republicans and you think we should vote for Democrats.' We're just talking about what the doctors recommend," Jenkins explained.

"You don't have to say, 'I would like you to wear this,'" Carlson said. "You can just put it on someone else and say, 'I'm sorry, this is doctor's orders.'"
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Michael Murney is a reporting fellow at the Dallas Observer and a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. His reporting has appeared in Chicago’s South Side Weekly and the Chicago Reader.
Contact: Michael Murney