HOUSTON, Texas — Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo got a disheartening phone call from the county’s public health director moments before a Monday news conference.
"We just had our first omicron-related death," she announced. "A man in his 50s."
That Precinct 2 resident in his 50s, who had underlying medical conditions, is now also believed to be the first such death in the nation due to the omicron variant of the virus.
"He was not vaccinated,” said Hidalgo.
KHOU 11 has learned the unidentified man died earlier this month, according to the Harris County Health Department, but test results confirming it was omicron weren't available until Monday. That means the variant was in Harris County before anyone knew it.
Hidalgo said the man was being treated with Regeneron, one of a number of monoclonal antibodies, or MCAs, used to treat specific COVID strains like the Delta variant.
They're primarily used in patients with medical issues that make vaccines less effective.
"This is not a substitute for the vaccine,” said Memorial Hermann infectious disease specialist, Dr. Linda Yancey.
She said MCAs presently used are not working well against omicron.
That's why Memorial Hermann, Houston Methodist and St. Luke's Health announced they were temporarily suspending such treatments.
It's something HCA Houston Healthcare previously did.
"Since these MCA therapies are not effective against the omicron variant, which is now the dominant strain in our region, like many other health systems, we have suspended these MCA therapies and are unable to accept new referrals at this time," said Memorial Hermann in a statement.
"A lot of people who get these monoclonal antibodies do alright," said Dr. Yancey. "But a lot of them still end up in the hospital, still end up severely ill and, unfortunately, still die.”
Yancey anticipates a more effective MCA to be available soon.
It will also been seen as a compliment to vaccines and not a replacement.
"It is very important, if you are not vaccinated, you need to get vaccinated as soon as possible," said Yancey. "If it’s been six months since your second dose – please go and get that booster.”
Memorial Hermann's full statement:
According to experts, the monoclonal antibody (MCA) therapies previously offered by Memorial Hermann – casirivimab, imdevimab (Regeneron), bamlanivimab and etesivimab (Eli Lilly) – lose most of their effectiveness when exposed to the omicron variant. Since these MCA therapies are not effective against the omicron variant, which is now the dominant strain in our region, like many other health systems, we have suspended these MCA therapies and are unable to accept new referrals at this time.
If you have tested positive for COVID-19 or believe you may be positive for COVID-19, please contact your primary care physician as soon as possible so a treatment plan can be developed for you. If you are experiencing emergency warning signs such as trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, inability to wake or stay awake and/or pale, gray or blue colored skin, lips or nailbeds, seek emergency medical care immediately.
In time, we may have access to additional treatment options to combat the omicron variant, including a new MCA therapy as well as two antiviral medications that are currently in the late stages of testing and Emergency Use Authorization approvals.
Houston Methodist statement:
We stopped taking new referrals as of today and will finish up infusions with existing monoclonal drugs on Thursday. We are expecting the arrival of a very limited supply of sotrovimab this week. That is the monoclonal antibody treatment that is effective against Omicron. Pending receipt of the sotrovimab, we will start treating patients with that drug next week, prioritizing it to only those patients who are at the highest risk of hospitalization.
St. Luke's Health statement:
St. Luke's Health is temporarily suspending its use of monoclonal antibodies in the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Our current monoclonal antibody inventory includes Regeneron and Eli Lily, which have been effective against prior strains of COVID-19, including the Delta variant. Recent studies show these have little to no activity against Omicron. Soltrovimab, however, does have activity against Omicron. We are working with the State to receive doses of this monoclonal antibody.