A new omicron COVID-19 variant is spreading fast across the United States and beginning to make inroads in Houston, where the positivity rate continues to rise.
The new strain, XBB.1.5, was first detected on the east coast in late October and gained traction in December. Over the last four weeks, it has quickly edged out the previously dominant strains to make up 40 percent of cases nationally. It appears to be more transmissible than its predecessors, based on early lab results, with properties that help it evade vaccine immunity, said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, chief of infectious diseases with UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann Hospital.
Ostrosky and other experts say the new strain is likely contributing to the rise in cases throughout Houston, where the percentage of positive tests jumped from 8.1 percent to 11.1 percent last week, according to the most recent data from the Texas Medical Center. The average number of weekly COVID hospitalizations also saw a sharp uptick last week, from 529 to 663, including intensive care unit admissions.
The numbers are still a far cry from the original omicron wave one year ago, but infectious disease experts worry how waning immune protection will factor into the surge.
“We are at a moment in the pandemic where a lot of people got sick over the summer and immunity is going down from natural infection,” Ostrosky said. “Vaccine rates are not great and boosting rates are abysmal in this country … It does appear we’re converging into this immunity cliff.”
Only 15 percent of Americans over 5 years old have received the updated booster shot, first authorized for adults in August. About 30 percent of the country’s population has yet to complete the primary series, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While the updated booster shot may not prevent infections from the newest variant, public health experts still say it’s the best way to prevent severe disease from COVID.
Same song, next verse. The good news for now, as Your Local Epidemiologist notes, is that this latest version of omicron, like all of its predecessors, isn’t any more virulent or deadly than before. Thus, hospitalization rates remain fairly stable, though they are currently going up. Flu and RSV infections are also declining, which helps. None of this matters if you or a loved one are getting sick. Get that bivalent booster and take the usual precautions. We will get through this.