TYLER, Texas (KETK) – East Texas health experts say omicron is twice as contagious as the delta variant and encourage people to keep their guard up against COVID-19.

Omicron is possibly already in East Texas.

“Given the spread across the country, given that over 70% of the cases are linked to it, I think it’s safe to say it has arrived,” said Dr. Thomas Cummins, Division Chief Medical Officer at UT Health East Texas.

He added that COVID-19 cases have slightly risen in the area.

Currently, there are are 3,304 Texans in the hospital due to the virus. There were 45 more cases in Smith County since Dec. 17. Cases went down in Nacogdoches, Angelina and Gregg Counties, but there were five new cases in Cherokee County.

To see how many COVID-19 cases there were on Wednesday in some East Texas counties see below:

Smith 379

Gregg 112

Nacogdoches 148

Angelina 43

Cherokee 23

The omicron variant is different from the delta variant, which previously overwhelmed hospitals in the country.

“This one is probably twice as infectious, so it moves really rapidly through people and from host to host,” said Cummins.

Early evidence shows that the vaccines are offering protection against the new variant.

“Particularly those who are triple vaccinated are really only experiencing mild symptoms, so I’m cautiously optimistic that it won’t cause a huge strain on the hospitals,” said Cummins.

The new COVID-19 strand causes milder symptoms than other variants. It can resemble a common cold and make people have a scratchy throat, nasal congestion, a cough and fever. It also might not affect people’s sense of smell or taste.

“That’s another concern for me. If it is milder and feels like a common cold people are just going to instinctively say ‘well, I have a cold. I don’t really need to get tested. I don’t need to get a physician.’ And, we may have a fair amount of undiagnosed COVID spread across East Texas,” said Cummins.

According to experts, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines provide the highest levels of protection from severe illness and hospitalization from COVID-19.

Monoclonal antibodies have also been used to treat people with the virus, but they are less helpful against the omicron variant.

“Many of those have very little effect on this variant as well. There’s only one that does, and it’s in short supply as well,” said Cummins.

On Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration authorized a Pfizer pill that people will be able to take at home, and it will help them combat COVID-19 symptoms. Cummins said this is an exciting development, but the medicine might not start helping people until next spring because it will take some time to manufacture it.

“If we see large numbers of people infected, unfortunately that medicine is not going to be very helpful. I’m afraid it’s just not going to be available,” said Cummins.

Experts are also worried more omicron cases might arrive in East Texas soon due to travel, while hospitals are already struggling to have enough staff members to care for regular patients. They say they are feeling the toll of this pandemic after two years.

“Our lack of masking, our lack of vaccination has led to a lot of pain and suffering for a lot of people and a lot of unfortunately needless deaths I’m afraid,” said Cummins.

He also said people can protect themselves from the new variant. They can wear masks, avoid large crowds, get vaccinated, get tested at home and have their friends and family get tested before gatherings this holiday season.