UK coronavirus variant widespread in Houston wastewater, health department says

The UK coronavirus variant has been detected at most wastewater treatment plants in Houston, suggesting "ongoing and uncontrolled community spread" of the strain, health officials say.

According to the Houston Health Department, samples collected on February 22 detected the variant called B.1.1.7 at 31 of the city’s 39 wastewater treatment plants. That was an increase from February 8 when it was detected at 21 of the plants.

RELATED: Study finds new UK coronavirus variant is 'substantially' more transmissible

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the UK variant spreads more easily and quickly than other variants.

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

The health department says about 19 percent of the wastewater samples collected on February 22 detected the UK variant.

The results of the wastewater testing were announced days before Texas is set to lift statewide COVID-19 restrictions including business capacity limits and a mask mandate.

RELATED: Gov. Abbott ends statewide mask mandate, fully reopens all Texas businesses

"I am concerned about this new data on the UK 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," said Mayor Sylvester Turner. "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 Houston Health Department and Houston Water started testing the city’s wastewater in May 2020 for the original strain of the virus to more quickly identify emerging outbreaks and pinpoint precise locations for interventions to break chains of transmission.

The project is a collaboration between the Houston Health Department and leading wastewater and data scientists from Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine.

RELATED: Houston project monitors wastewater to identify emerging COVID-19 outbreaks

Officials say people who have COVID-19 shed the virus in their feces, even if they don’t have symptoms.

The health department says wastewater sample results are pending for other highly transmissible variants, including the South Africa, Brazil, and California variants.

Nine cases of the UK variant, one case of the South African variant, two cases of the Brazil variant, and 11 cases of the California variant are currently confirmed in Houston. The health department says not all laboratories test for variant strains, and those that do have limited capacity.

RELATED: 3 cases of California COVID-19 variant confirmed in Harris County