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How different are these new Covid variants and why are they concerning?

As many news sources have noted, the number of Covid cases are increasing throughout the USA over the last 4 weeks. The actual number of cases has been difficult to pinpoint since so many cases go unreported. Many cases are detected by home antibody tests and are not ever counted by local authorities. Additionally, as so many individuals had a prior case of Covid, many current cases have decreased symptoms. More concerning is that the affected person in the latter situation may not even test themselves for Covid but still potentially be contagious to others.

Hospitalizations from Covid, which can be readily assessed, are more important to follow since they include the cases with the most cost and likelihood for death and morbidity. Hospitalizations related to Covid have now reached over three thousand a week and represent an increase of 31% over the past two weeks. Since the average cost for a Covid hospitalization is over $40,000, these increases have been noted by insurers and hospitals alike.

Several new Covid variants are currently receiving major headlines. The EG.5 or “Eris” variant has become the most common Covid variant in certain parts of the country while another variant, FL1.5.1, has also become almost as predominant in others. The most problematic variant may eventually be the recently discovered 2.86 or “Pirola” variant which has been detected in multiple countries all over the world. This variant has also been seen in NYC wastewater so it has already been causing a notable number of infections in the general population. While the Pirola variant has not been widely found in current infections, its structure with many spike protein mutations has placed it at a high risk for being extremely infectious.

Certain aspects of the pandemic should make individuals be potentially concerned going into the fall season. Covid cases have decreased in lethality since the beginning of the pandemic as the variants have changed their morphology and most individuals have gained some degree of immunity through vaccines and personal infections. However, a constellation of other factors has created a situation where Covid infections may accelerate this fall. As mentioned, the new variants have gained more contagiousness. Personal safety measures have almost vanished as mask wearing and crowd avoidance have decreased. Booster rates continue to be low and vaccines given more than 6 months ago will have diminished value. Additionally, home testing has almost vanished so people with active infections have kept themselves in the community where they can infect others. Resumption of meetings and classes in closed environments in the fall will increase this risk, especially since many organizations have relaxed their scrutiny. Increased travel to pre-pandemic levels will disseminate infectious variants more readily.

Thankfully, the pandemic is not seeing the fatality rates of earlier years. Despite this positive news, conditions appear ripe for increased infections this fall that could threaten productivity and personal safety while contributing to increased morbidity for vulnerable persons. Continued reasonable vigilance will benefit responsible institutions who recognize these potential challenges.

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