McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Health officials say they have discovered a “sub-variant” of the omicron variant of COVID-19 among five new cases in the South Texas county of Hidalgo, meaning the virus has mutated again, Border Report has learned.
In an exclusive interview on Thursday morning, Hidalgo County Health and Human Services Chief Administrative Officer Eduardo “Eddie” Olivarez told Border Report that there are now over 20,000 cases of coronavirus detected within this border county since Dec. 23, including 10 cases of the omicron variant.
Among the 10 cases of omicron in Hidalgo County, scientists have discovered a mutated new form, which is the sub-variant.
Olivarez said the sub-variant detected, however, does not necessarily mean the virus is worse than earlier forms.
“We have 10 confirmed cases of omicron but we have our first confirmed sub-variant of omicron. Is it a more serious illness? No. It’s just a different molecular structure,” he said via a Zoom interview.
The explosion of cases is so high along the border in the Rio Grande Valley that state health and FEMA officials will open a “regional” drive-thru testing site next Wednesday at the Edinburg Municipal Park at 714 S. Raul Longoria Road in Edinburg, Texas.
There have been at least 2,000 new cases of coronavirus in Hidalgo County just since Monday, he said.
Olivarez said scientists have already identified over 30 different variants of the coronavirus strain, including the delta and omicron forms. And he said they are constantly working to discover more, as well as sub-variants of each strain.
Several news reports, including those from India, have identified at least three sub-variants of the omicron strain of COVID-19. The Times of India, calls the sub-variants “siblings” of omicron, the third of which was detected in England on Dec. 3.
Olivarez said not every person tested for coronavirus has their sample sent to evaluate its strain.
Testing for the omicron strain and other variants can only be done at the state level, by the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS), or by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The process is quite intense and involves specialized equipment and staff. It includes the study of over “300 different segmentations” of the virus sample.
He said only a random “sampling” of tests are sent by hospitals and “big box” pharmacies to be evaluated.
Test results can take upwards of three weeks for local officials to receive results. In the meantime, there can be significant community spread, which is what appears to be happening on the South Texas-Mexico border.
Knowing that the omicron variant is highly infectious and fast-spreading, Olivarez said he and other health officials in Hidalgo County strongly believe that the high rates of new cases are of the omicron strain, but they don’t have conclusive results back in, yet.
Other border communities also are reporting a significant spike in cases, like Tijuana, Mexico, with a 74% positivity rate.
“Mother Nature is very powerful. Mother Nature is going to always win in the end,” Olivarez said. “Viruses are part of Mother Nature. Viruses adapt and change. A virus is the most simple form of life form that is designed to multiply and feed. It’s going to adapt to its food source – humans and it’s going to adapt to growing the spread.”
Mother Nature is very powerful. Mother Nature is going to always win in the end … Viruses are part of Mother Nature. Viruses adapt and change. A virus is the most simple form of life form that is designed to multiply and feed. It’s going to adapt to its food source – humans and it’s going to adapt to growing the spread.”Hidalgo County Health and Human Services Chief Administrative Officer Eduardo “Eddie” Olivarez
Olivarez said that TDSHS and the Texas Department of Emergency Management is working with the University of Texas and its affiliate campuses to launch the regional coronavirus testing site in the Rio Grande Valley. He said he hopes the site will be up and running for at least 21 days during which time all tests will be free.
The site will offer free tests, which he says have become very hard to come by.
“It’s going to be something to help us a lot,” Olivarez said. “We are very excited about having that FEMA TDEM test site being operational next week.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.