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Healthcare workers on the border expect omicron wave as therapy supplies decline

Monoclonal therapy treatment doses at a Department of State Health Services infusion center in Brownsville, Texas.
Pablo De La Rosa
Monoclonal therapy treatment doses at a Department of State Health Services infusion center in Brownsville, Texas.

Eder Hernandez, the chief physician’s assistant at a monoclonal infusion center in Cameron County, said this week that omicron may already be present on the Texas-Mexico border, and he confirmed the suspected case with the state.

A positive COVID-19 test at his lab presented the absence of a genetic marker that the World Health Organization has advised can be indicative of the omicron variant.

“This report is basically able to show that it’s a possibility that the Omicron variant is already active here in the Rio Grande Valley,” Hernandez explained. “CDC genomic surveillance shows a 70% infection rate, and we do expect over 90% in the next two weeks.”

The widely used PCR tests confirm a COVID infection by detecting four genetic proteins, but omicron has been reported to be missing one of the four genes.

However, the tell-tale missing gene seen by Hernandez in Brownsville this week may occasionally drop out for other reasons so the test sample must be fully sequenced genetically by the state in order to officially confirm the presence of omicron in the region.

Hernandez said monoclonal infusion patients recently increased from two per day to up to seven per day at the center he helps to oversee on the border.

This worried Hernandez because two of the three existing monoclonal antibody therapies that help keep COVID infections from becoming severe do not work against omicron.

Sotrovimab manufactured by GSK is currently the only monoclonal therapy that has shown any effect on patients infected with the omicron variant.

The Texas Department of Emergency Management currently reports that out of 21 monoclonal infusion centers in the Rio Grande Valley, the center where Hernandez works is currently the only one with any stock of the GSK antibody treatment.

Only 96 doses are currently available at that location as of Wednesday. Hernandez said he has only been able to request 300 more.

Hernandez said the incoming wave of omicron, coupled with the issue of a very low supply of the therapy on hand to keep infected individuals out of hospitals, may have dire results.

“If we don’t get this stock to be a high number, you could see a lot of hospitalizations. And when you do a monoclonal infusion that prevents death by 80%,” he said.

“But,” Hernandez added, “we expect that in the next two weeks everything will be omicron. I do hope we get our Sotrovimab doses at a higher stock to be able to help more people because that is my scare right now.”

RELATED: RGV COVID-19 live blog: Hospitalizations in Hidalgo County continue to climb

Pablo De La Rosa is a freelance journalist reporting statewide with Texas Public Radio and nationally with NPR from the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, from where he originates. He’s the host of the daily Spanish-language newscast TPR Noticias Al Día.