Covid cases, hospitalizations increase as new variant gains foothold

POLITICO spoke with two infectious disease experts about what the new Omicron strain, XBB1.5, which now accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. cases and appears to be especially prevalent in the Northeast, means for the country.

The variant does not appear to increase hospitalizations and deaths, but the risk to people is real.

Although hospitalizations from Covid appears to be on the rise nationallyexperts do not project this subvariant of Omicron by itself to cause a spike; forecasts from early data suggest they will remain fairly stable, said CĂ©line Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Holiday travel, social gatherings and colder weather are factors in the increased hospitalization rate.

“This may be more transmissible, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into more hospitalizations and deaths in the general population,” he added.

The prediction matches data from Singapore, where a related subvariant recently became dominant but did not lead to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths, even though that country’s vaccination rate is higher than that of the US.

But some people, especially those who are elderly or pregnant or with weakened immune systems, are at greater risk of the virus, regardless of larger population trends.

“I’m a little concerned just because it’s coupled with extremely low booster rates for people over 65,” said Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center. “Our most vulnerable are not as protected.”

And Covid continues to be a concern for the population as a whole, health experts have continued to stress. From lingering Covid to ongoing disease threats from influenza and respiratory syncytial disease, the risks continue.

And that’s why Gounder and Jetelina, among other health experts, continue to emphasize the importance of vaccination, masking and testing to stop the virus.

It matters that this variant is more transmissible than others, but exaggerating the risk could have drawbacks.

“We have to be careful not to exaggerate the risk every time there’s a new variant because I think you’re going to see fatigue, we’re already seeing fatigue,” Gounder said of the public’s attention to the pandemic. “So you have to be careful when you say this is really a threat and it’s not.”

A subvariant like this is not surprising, and more of the same is likely to come, both experts said. “This virus continues to do what viruses do,” Jetelina said. “We will continue to see this.” Viral strains that are better at infecting people than earlier versions will eventually become dominant in the population, until a more contagious variant enters the scene.

“The big picture, this is exactly what you would expect: this virus that is more transmissible has an evolutionary advantage over other variants and will come to dominate the population,” Gounder said.

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