FILE - In this Jan. 25, 2021, file photo, a person wearing face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus walks near a sign advertising a rapid COVID-19 testing site in Philadelphia. U.S. healthy officials say that most fully vaccinated Americans can skip testing for COVID-19, even if they were exposed to someone infected. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

As the omicron variant of COVID-19 quickly spreads across the United States, public health experts fear that Texas’ health care system could once again be overwhelmed by the disease within weeks.

“It’s really accelerating fast,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a virologist at Baylor College of Medicine. “I think we’re going to be in the middle of it by Christmas.”

The new variant of the coronavirus was detected in Texas for the first time earlier this month, and outbreaks and surging case counts have since been tied to the strain.Although COVID-19 hospitalizations remain relatively low in most of the state, a fast-rising number of people are testing positive for the virus in the state’s urban centers. Hospitals in the Texas Panhandle and El Paso are again filling up with COVID-19 patients, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

s of Thursday, there have been 116 confirmed coronavirus cases related to the omicron variant in Texas, the state health department said. Although the delta variant is still prominent in Texas, medical researchers predict omicron will soon become the dominant strain. Early evidence suggests omicron may be milder but spreads faster and more often to vaccinated people, medical experts said. They expect that people who have been fully vaccinated and recently gotten a booster shot will still be much better protected from serious illness or death.

Still, medical researchers are trying to determine how severe omicron-related infections are on unvaccinated individuals or even the less-recently vaccinated, since evidence of more mild infections is based largely on anecdotal cases among a younger population, like in South Africa. With Texas’ lagging vaccination rates and an already-depleted hospital workforce, public health experts in the state fear omicron could become devastating for the health care system — even if the variant ends up largely causing only relatively mild illness.

“Those rural counties where we have low vaccination rates and have lost hospital infrastructure, those I think we should be the most concerned about,” said Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health. “The past 20 months we have seen hospitals close, we’ve seen hospitals lose their staff. … We are not in a great place with our health care infrastructure to handle another mass influx of cases.”