Texas Mask Mandate Lifted 'Too Soon' As U.K. COVID Variant Spreads in Houston

Texas is due to lift mask mandates and COVID-related operating limits on businesses amid warnings a more contagious variant is spreading there.

On March 2, governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order effective March 10 allowing all businesses in the state to operate at up to 100 percent capacity in areas that do not have high rates of COVID hospitalizations. In addition, the order said there would be no penalties for anyone who does not wear a face mask, though businesses may still require them.

On March 8, two days before the rule relaxations, the Houston Health Department said there were signs the B.1.1.7 COVID variant—also known as the U.K. variant—was spreading in an active and uncontrolled way through the city.

The department said wastewater samples had been taken from wastewater treatment plants in Houston on February 22. Using these samples, researchers detected the U.K. COVID variant in 31 of the city's 39 treatment plants.

This marked an increase from February 8, when similar tests showed the variant was present in 21 treatment plants.

Scientists can use wastewater samples to help figure out where COVID outbreaks are taking place because people who have the virus tend to shed it in their feces.

Dr. David Persse, chief medical officer for the City of Houston, said in a statement: "The prevalence of the U.K. variant in our wastewater shows it's actively spreading in our city.

"This is another clear indication that we must continue to mask up, practice social distancing, wash our hands, get tested and, get vaccinated when possible."

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement: "I am concerned about this new data on the U.K. strain of the virus in Houston, especially at a time when the State of Texas is easing mandates on measures proven to reduce transmission and ultimately save lives.

"Despite the mixed messaging, this is a clear indication that it is too soon to stop requiring masks in public places. I urge all Houstonians to continue masking up to protect their families and community."

The U.K. variant has caused concern because it spreads more easily between people than other variants. In addition, analysis from the U.K. government's NERVTAG virus threat group on February 11 stated multiple datasets had shown B.1.1.7 is associated with an increased risk of hospitalization and death compared with variants that aren't deemed concerning.

The country's scientific adviser Patrick Vallance told a press conference in January that preliminary analyses suggested that out of every 1,000 men aged 60 who were infected with the variant, 13 or 14 might be expected to die compared with 10 in every 1,000 with the original COVID variant.

In addition, researchers have found samples of the U.K. variant that appear to have a mutation known as E484K. This mutation has been associated with vaccine resistance, according to one pre-print study.

However, another study published in Nature on March 8 suggested vaccines worked well against the U.K. variant, based on blood samples taken from 22 people who had received two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna COVID vaccine.

The U.K. variant is the most widely spread COVID variant in the U.S. that the CDC is tracking, based on its reported statistics.

As of March 7, there were 3,037 reported cases in the U.S., with 101 confirmed in Texas. However, the CDC said these cases were only based on samples, so the actual number could be higher.

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Greg Abbott speaking
Texas Governor Greg Abbott speaks at a press conference at the Texas State Capitol on May 18, 2020 in Austin, Texas. Abbott's executive order lifting mask mandates in the state comes into force March 10. Lynda M. Gonzalez/Pool/Getty