Jan 12, 2023 - COVID

New COVID subvariant on the rise

Illustration of a pattern of covid particles and positive signs turning into each other.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The XBB.1.5 COVID-19 subvariant — a new version of the Omicron variant — is slowly growing in Houston.

Threat level: Houston is in the midst of another COVID-19 wave, and the new, contagious variant is contributing to the rise in cases.

  • XBB.1.5 makes up about 12%–15% of local cases, according to David Persse, the chief medical officer with the City of Houston.
  • Persse expects the new strain will continue to spread throughout the city for a few weeks.

Zoom out: The World Health Organization states that the new strain is "the most transmissible" descendant yet of the Omicron variant, according to the Washington Post.

The intrigue: XBB.1.5 is different from previous variants because it can attach itself better to cells, CNBC reports.

By the numbers: COVID-related hospitalization numbers are increasing locally. On average, there are 182 daily new COVID hospitalizations, up from about 50 new hospitalizations in early November, according to the Texas Medical Center tracker.

  • The amount of virus in the city's wastewater is 999% above the baseline set back in the summer of 2020, which means that the virus is pervasive throughout the city, according to Thomas Giordano, chief of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine.
  • Of note: The wastewater's number gives a more accurate picture of how much COVID-19 is spreading since most people are now testing at home.

Meanwhile, 262,588 individuals have received a bivalent booster as of Monday, according to the Houston Health Department.

What they're saying: While cases are rising, the hospitalization numbers aren't as drastic as past waves or the Omicron peak last winter, and that's largely due to vaccination and immunity from a previous infection, experts say.

  • "The people in the ICUs ... are almost exclusively unvaccinated elderly people over 60 …. So if you're over 60, and you're not vaccinated, you really need to give that some thought," Persse said.

The big picture: COVID-19 is on its way of becoming endemic, meaning it won't go away, but it'll be more predictable and manageable, Persse said.

The bottom line: Experts still suggest getting the vaccine and bivalent booster.

  • "I get it if someone's 35 and healthy and got their primary two doses and is kind of dragging their feet on a booster," Giordano said.
  • "Their risk of hospitalization, if they got COVID is pretty darn low at this point, just based on their age, so I get it if they're dragging their feet. But there's clearly a risk benefit ratio that favors getting the booster. If you've not gotten any vaccines, then that's just a slam dunk."

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