HealthcareLocal NewsIn First Reported Omicron Death, Harris County Man Had Underlying Health Conditions

Although some media outlets characterized a Harris County man’s death as the first due to Omicron in the nation, the local health department reports underlying health issues and has not released the primary cause of death.
December 27, 2021
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Just days before Christmas, national and local media outlets carried reports that the first death due to the Omicron variant had occurred in Texas, but information from the Harris County health department does not state that the new COVID-19 variant was the cause of death.

The rumor of an Omicron death was launched last Monday during a press conference held by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo during which she announced that she was raising the county’s COVID-19 threat level.

“We just had our first Omicron-related death: a man in his fifties,” said Hidalgo.

Within hours, multiple outlets such as CNN and Microsoft News Network (MSN) were reporting the “country’s first death attributed to the Omicron variant.”

In a statement released December 20, Harris County Public Health (HCPH) announced the “first COVID-19 Omicron-variant-associated death in the county.” While noting the man was unvaccinated and had been previously infected with COVID-19, HCPH adds that the individual had underlying health conditions.

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Later, HCPH spokesperson Martha Marquez clarified information about the man’s death to journalist Dan Cohen.  

“We cannot confirm that the patient died of COVID, but we can say that he was Omicron positive at the time of his death,” said Marquez.

An HCPH spokesperson confirmed to The Texan that the deceased man had COVID-19 in 2020, and that the department’s epidemiologists had determined he was positive for Omicron at the time of death, but the agency did not have updated information about the primary cause.

Hidalgo warned residents that there will likely be more deaths related to Omicron, “but the evidence shows that for those vaccinated and with the booster, it is much less likely…that they’re going to end up in the hospital,” said Hidalgo, while acknowledging that there were breakthrough infections.

“Folks with the vaccine are getting it, but that does not mean the vaccine does not work; on the contrary. Evidence shows the vaccine is going to keep you out of the hospital,” said Hidalgo.

Days prior to Hidalgo’s announcement, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19, but noted that he had received a booster vaccine earlier this year and his symptoms were mild. Turner added that he believed he contracted the virus at an event where all attendees wore masks.  

While the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are reporting that the Omicron variant appears to be more highly transmissible, early studies from Scotland and South Africa indicated that symptoms are much more mild than those associated with previous forms of COVID-19. 

On Monday, December 27, Australia reported one death of a man in his 80s who had Omicron but also additional underlying health conditions.   

The 14-day average of COVID-19 positive cases in Harris County has risen to 10.2 percent as of December 26, with 8.5 percent of ICU beds and nearly 3 percent of general hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 positive patients according to HCPH.  

Hidalgo said the rise in positive cases and hospitalizations made it necessary to raise the county’s threat level from “Yellow-Moderate” to “Orange-Significant.” Under the new level, Hidalgo says the unvaccinated should minimize contacts and avoid any medium or large gatherings.

“If you are vaccinated…we are not asking you to avoid travel or avoid going out. We are asking you to be vigilant, we are asking you to wear your mask, we are asking you to get your booster.” 

With an estimated population of nearly 4.8 million, Harris County has reported 612,588 positive COVID-19 cases and 6,731 deaths since March of 2020. 

Last month the Houston health department reported that of the city’s 3,646 COVID-19 deaths, nearly 52 percent had diabetes, and another 23 percent were obese. Houston health also noted that hypertension was the most common comorbidity at more than 56 percent.

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.