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What is the importance of this new COVID variant?

One year ago the Omicron variant of COVID was flourishing in the US. Death tolls at this time increased to over 2500 cases a day and rivaled the worst times of the entire pandemic. Currently, a subvariant of Omicron called XBB1.5 has surfaced and increased COVID cases threefold from earlier in the fall. Due to its perceived threatening properties, the internet has referred to this subvariant as “Kraken”, a mythological Norwegian sea monster.

Scientists studying this new subvariant XBB1.5 feel its unique properties are conducive to the rapid spread of cases to those infected. This entity was actually detected in India last August but has now been found in 25 countries and is peaking in the US. Its strategic advantage over previous variants lies around its ability to bind host cells more efficiently than previous variants.

The contagiousness of this subvariant is already being seen. As of January 9, the subvariant was already being detected in 25% of US cases. In the Northeast, the XBB1.5 cases are up to reportedly 78% of all cases. New York State has seen an increase of 30% in deaths reported from COVID in December 2022 from the earlier month, reflecting the highest monthly death toll in the state since February.

This subvariant XBB1.5 is also considered “immune-evasive” so it may not be easily neutralized by existing antibodies from previous COVID infections or vaccines. Although the bivalent booster was recently created specifically for Omicron subvariants, XBB1.5 may be able to avoid being specifically targeted by this vaccine. However, the generally positive antibody enhancement from any recent vaccine or booster should be valuable in decreasing the morbidity, hospitalization, or death associated with a new XBB1.5 infection.

As the number of COVID cases in the US is substantially rising all over the country, public health officials are urging people to necessary precautions. While the new subvariant is not necessarily more lethal on a per-case basis, the sheer increase in cases will cause increased deaths, hospitalizations, and hospital stresses. This increased inpatient caseload will put more pressure on hospitals that are already feeling staffing crunches and medication shortages from the pandemic and other supply chain issues.

The potential problems from XBB1.5 do not stop there. The typical time for peak COVID infections generally occurs several weeks after the Christmas and New Year holidays. This delay occurs as the virus circulates in the community and predicts the peak number of infections that should occur over the next several weeks. This magnitude of this case increase will be compounded by a low booster uptake rate of 15% for the latest vaccine product as well as the natural decrease in immunity over time from previous vaccines or COVID infections. Nursing homes appear especially vulnerable to a major influx of serious cases as only 40% of seniors have received the recently updated boosters.

All organizations are likely to feel the burden of XBB1.5 in some way. Community rates of COVID are going up and widespread masking is still scarce. Employers should expect disruptions to workflow as more infections plague their staff. Some schools are already seeing more cases and have introduced new masking protocols. Abroad, many countries are concerned about the pandemic that is now ravaging China and have introduced travel restrictions to limit the spread of COVID cases.

As discussed, many pandemic-related threats are surfacing at once. Families, schools, and businesses need to understand their latest risks and prepare accordingly. Everyone should be monitoring their own community risk levels and ensure they are fully protected and up-to-date on their COVID and flu shots. Fatigue and even misinformation have created resistance to these measures, but they are essential. Only when people understand fully their own threats and respond can the light at the end of the tunnel start to grow brighter.

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