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Protecting Yourself Against the New COVID-19 Variant

This month, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that the newest COVID-19 variant, known as XBB.1.5, is the most transmissible subvariant we’ve seen so far.

Mehul Suthar, who studies emerging viral infections at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, told USA Today that XBB.1.5 appears to be about five times more contagious than earlier omicron variants, which were five times more contagious than the original virus.

What We Know About XBB.1.5

Here are a few facts your primary care doctors in Delray Beach think you should know about the latest COVID-19 variant.

  • It is the first recombinant variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus; that is, it’s the first time two types of the omicron variant have combined types to become more efficient.
  • Late last month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that about 40 percent of current cases of COVID-19 are caused by the latest omicron relative, known as XBB.1.5.
  • In December, XBB.1.5 more than doubled its share of COVID-19 cases each week, rising from about four percent of new infections in the first week to about 41 percent by the end of the month.
  • XBB.1.5 now represents over 75 percent of cases in the Northeast. In the coming weeks, it’s expected to similarly affect the rest of the country.
  • XBB.1.5 does not appear to be more deadly or cause worse symptoms than previous versions of the coronavirus.
  • As of January 4, only about 15 percent of eligible Americans over the age of five have received the updated COVID-19 booster, according to the CDC.

Cause for Concern

“The mutation is clearly letting XBB.1.5 spread better,” Jesse Bloom, a computational virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, told CNN in an email.

The new data on the XBB.1.5 variant, coupled with the lack of booster uptake in the general population, has experts worried that we may be facing a new COVID-19 surge in the U.S.

“I expect it to drive increased circulation in the coming weeks,” Trevor Bedford, a professor of computational biology at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, told CNN earlier this month.

Because more people are testing at home, he said, we may not be able to measure the impact in case numbers alone.

“So I’d look to hospitalizations in the vulnerable age groups [such as seniors] as a better indication of a wave,” he wrote in an email.

Nevertheless, what we’ve seen from XBB.1.5 has some experts worried.

“For a few months now, we haven’t seen a variant that’s taken off at that speed,” Pavitra Roychoudhury, director of COVID-19 sequencing at the University of Washington School of Medicine’s virology lab, told CNN.

On the other hand, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said in a Twitter thread that, while the government is continuing to track XBB.1.5 closely, it is also providing support for access to the updated vaccines, free tests and treatment, and improved ventilation and filtration in buildings, ABC News reported.

Getting the Word Out

Adding to the concern was the move by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to remove the last remaining monoclonal antibody from its list of recommended treatments at the end of last year. The treatment, bebtelovimab, was apparently ineffective in neutralizing the omicron subvariants, according to the agency.

Still, that leaves several antiviral therapies, such as Paxlovid, available to those with mild infections.

The trouble is, not enough people are taking advantage of them, or perhaps they just aren’t aware of them.

“Getting the word out both to individuals, as well as primary care physicians, about the importance of getting Paxlovid is really of great importance,” Peter Hotez, co-director of Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told ABC News.

Paxlovid is a prescription antiviral drug approved to treat mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19. Studies show it is nearly 90 percent effective at preventing serious illness and hospitalizations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people begin taking Paxlovid as soon as possible after symptoms first appear or after testing positive for the virus, and no later than within five days of when symptoms start.

“Don’t delay: Treatment must be started within days of when you first develop symptoms to be effective,” the CDC says.

How to Protect Yourself

Another way to stay safe is to continue wearing masks in public because it’s better not to become infected at all, Suthar told USA Today.

And all of the experts urged that more people—especially those at the highest risk—receive the latest boosters against the coronavirus. Although they aren’t designed for the XBB.1.5 variant, they do offer a degree of protection.

Michael Osterholm, who directs the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told CNN he sees reason for hope from the updated bivalent boosters, which target the original coronavirus as well as the omicron strains BA.4 and BA.5.

“They still provide a level of immunity that may not prevent you from getting infected but may have a significant impact on whether you become seriously ill and die,” he said.

“I mean, right now, the most recent data we have shows that for those who have the bivalent vaccine, they have a three-fold lower risk of dying than those who don’t,” he added.

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