Gloved hands holding a vial near a microscope.

January 19, 2021

A far more contagious coronavirus variant—first spotted in the United Kingdom—has arrived in Houston, Harris County Public Health officials say.

B.1.1.7, as it’s called, is up to 70% more contagious than other variants of the coronavirus, formally known as SARS-CoV-2.

New variants are no surprise. As viruses reproduce and infect, they commonly develop small changes to their genetic code.

But this pandemic newcomer has local authorities worried. If you were to compare it to variants already here, B.1.1.7 is a sprinter, moving faster from person to person.

Whether it becomes an endurance athlete like some variants of SARS-CoV-2 already in the U.S. remains to be seen. But at least a half-dozen states report cases of the new arrival.

So far, only one person, a Southwest Harris County resident in his 30s, has been reported to have the new variant in all of Texas. But as we know, viruses spread.

“This has the potential to throw jet fuel on an already dangerous situation,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a press conference Thursday, January 7.

The good news is that the new variant does not appear to be more lethal—and vaccines appear to be effective against it.

That doesn’t mean this new variety can’t harm you or your loved ones. Since the pandemic began, 21.7 million Americans have caught COVID-19, and more than 365,000 have died—over 30,000 of them in Texas alone.

So don’t let habits or masks slip. Wash hands frequently and maintain a social distance of at least six feet from people outside your immediate household.

You also need to keep defenses up against those outside your household, even cherished relatives and neighbors. You cannot know how well they’re heeding preventive measures when you’re not present.

Not just adults catch or transmit COVID-19. More than 2 million children under age 18 have been diagnosed with the virus, reports the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.

If you have symptoms—such as exhaustion, high temperature, chest congestion, nasal congestion or loss to taste and/or smell—get tested. Even if symptoms are minor.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says if you’ve spent 15 minutes or more within 24 hours with someone who you discover has COVID-19, you should quarantine for 10 days from the last know date of exposure or seven days from the last known day of exposure with a negative test from day 5, 6 or 7—even if you used protective measures.

Be aware that a negative test isn’t an immunity badge if you test too early in the incubation period. You could be infected in the days after, so if symptoms continue or present, you may need to test again. Talk with your health care provider if you have questions.

For more information about COVID-19 and the COVID-19 vaccine, visit our Resource Center.

The information in this article was accurate as of January 15, 2021.

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