Health

New COVID-19 variant emerging: What we know about ‘XBB.1.5’

As a new COVID-19 variant starts to emerge, Ohio health experts and those who work with the elderly are urging people to get to their updated booster shots.

The good news is that case counts, hospitalizations and deaths are not as high as they have been for the past two winters.

Still, thousands of Americans and dozens of Ohioans are dying from the disease each week and a new, much more contagious variant is showing up.

“It ends up mutating into a new variant all the time,” said Summit County Health Commissioner Donna Skoda.

Skoda says that’s exactly what the coronavirus continues to do this winter.

She and other state experts say the virus has now mutated into a variant known as “XBB.1.5.” It’s a subvariant of the omicron variant, but even more contagious.

“We don’t know if the vaccine remains effective. We believe it does. That any of the treatments, the therapeutics we have, if they work as well. So every time we get these new variants and you see these surges, you start to wonder, is it going to be effective? Are we going to need to go back to the drawing board and get another new vaccine?” Skoda said.

“If you get the booster, you can still get COVID, but you’re three times less likely to go to the hospital or die. It’s actually one of the most transmissible variants that we’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Ben Bring, an Ohio Health physician.

According to numbers released Wednesday by the Ohio Department of Health, 2,500 Americans continue to die from COVID each week and 90 Ohioans die from the disease weekly.

They say four out of five, or nearly 80% of Ohioans who have died of COVID, have been 65 and older.

According to ODH, about 87% aged 65 and older are fully vaccinated.

But state health experts say only 38% have received the maximum protection of an updated booster, which worries many doctors.

That means more than 1.2 million older Ohioans are unvaccinated or not up to date with the bivalent booster that was made available in September.

Skoda says that is perhaps due to vaccine fatigue.

“People are saying ‘Hey, I’ve already had four of these, three of these. I don’t think I need another,’” said Skoda.

State health director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff says immunity wanes over time, especially as we age, and the updated COVID vaccine can provide a much needed boost to the body’s immunity.

Health experts also emphasize that booster shots are not just beneficial for the older population.

“Maybe I go visit my elderly grandmother in a nursing home or I go see my elderly parent. I could easily transmit that, so none of us can ever let our guard down,” said Skoda.

The Summit County health commissioner says vaccines’ effectiveness lasts about four to six months.

She does not expect a new vaccine is needed, even for this new variant that is appearing in about 40% of cases.

State health experts say hospitalizations are up slightly, but experts say perhaps that is because of the growing number of people are getting COVID-19.