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A new COVID-19 variant that’s more transmissible has made its way through the country, and it's expected to ramp up in South Dakota in the coming weeks, Sanford Health and Avera Health officials warn.
But they aren’t hitting the panic button yet as they continue to monitor data coming through.
XBB.1.5, an omicron subvariant, nicknamed the “Kraken,” has been considered by some as the most transmissible variant of COVID-19 seen yet. That doesn’t mean it's necessarily more severe. It's thought by Sanford and Avera officials to have the same amount of severity as its predecessors so far.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the new variant accounted for 43% of sequenced cases last week. With bivalent boosters available, they are thought to provide protection against the new XBB.1.5 variant, the health agency officials said.
As hospitalizations due to COVID-19 remain low in South Dakota, Sanford Health’s chief physician Jeremy Cauwels predicts the new variant has already made its way to the state as early as a week ago.
Here's what you need to know about the new COVID-19 strain spreading throughout the country.
New variant more transmissible, no change in severity
The new variant spreads faster than any other variant so far, said David Basel, Avera Health’s vice president of clinical quality.
"That's probably the biggest thing about this is that it really, really spreads quickly, and it's taking over different parts of the world pretty quickly, compared to others," Basel said.
While the variant is more transmissible, there hasn’t been any evidence yet that it’s more severe or deadly than its predecessors, health officials said.
“... Bottom line is we’re watching it pretty closely," Basel said. "And if things start to rise, we’ll certainly help get the word out. At this point, that’s what we’re doing, watchful waiting, but nothing huge needs to be done at this point.” .
The World Health Organization currently has no data on severity, but ongoing assessments indicate the new variant doesn’t carry any mutation known to be associated with potential change in severity. The organization said the confidence in its assessment so far is low.
Cauwels said in the last week, the state has started to see cases roll in.
“We’ve already probably seen at least a week of the new variant, and what it shows is increased numbers of infections, but no increase in hospitalization or death, so that’s good news,” Cauwels said.
He went on to say within the next week, it’s expected that XBB.1.5 will become the dominant strain. The South Dakota Department of Health tracks variant cases, but its latest report didn’t include numbers of the new XBB.1.5 variant.
At Avera, in its footprint that includes South Dakota and surrounding areas in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and North Dakota, Basel estimated that fewer than 10% of the cases were from the new variant.
“(XBB.1.5) hasn’t really taken over here,” Basel said. “We anticipate that it will be in the coming weeks, but we haven’t seen a big impact from it locally, and certainly we haven’t seen our numbers go up locally yet.”
For patients, it’s “almost impossible to tell clinically the difference” between strains, Basel said. For the most part, symptoms have stayed the same with common cold-like symptoms.
“If you do get common cold symptoms, don’t be a hero and go to work,” Basel said. “Get yourself tested, make sure you’re not passing along Omicron or still influenza at this point … That’s probably the most important thing, making sure if you do have some symptoms, either take a home test or get tested some other way.”
Cauwels said the loss of taste and smell, which they have already seen with previous variants, has become “less prominent.”
“You can’t quite hang your hat on, ‘if I can’t taste or smell, I have COVID.’" Cauwels said. "There’s a lot more of the common symptoms, you know, a cold, a fever, stuffy nose, all of those sorts of things are more common now with this strain."
What are the symptoms of XBB.1.5?
According to the CDC, symptoms include:
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Body aches or headache
Fever or chills
Congestion or runny nose
Nausea or vomiting
Bivalent boosters encouraged by health officals
With the new variant, an offshoot of Omicron, health officials have said the bivalent booster shot might be the most effective. The bivalent boosters came out in October and covers both the Delta and Omicron variants, Basel said.
Those bivalent boosters include a component of the original virus strain to provide broad protection against the virus, and a component of the omicron variant to “provide better protection against COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant,” according to the Food and Drug Administration.
People who had the initial two vaccines, but are without a booster, may want to think about getting another shot, Basel said.
“They are still thought to be a pretty good match with the newer variants,” Basel said. “... The inital vaccines are far enough away from what these newer strains look like that they’re probably not providing too much help this far out.”
So far, Cauwels said while the new variant is spreading quickly, vaccines and treatments have seemed to be effective in preventing people from being admitted into a hospital or dying. The unvaccinated are most at risk of hospitalization and death compared to those who are vaccinated, according to Sanford Health.
According to the American Medical Association, a study determined participants who received the bivalent vaccine had lower hospitalization and mortality rates, because of COVID-19 than non-recipients up to 70 days after the vaccination.
The authorized bivalent boosters are available in multiple locations in and around Sioux Falls, and a list of them can be found here.
“It’s important to get the boosters if you haven’t already,” Basel said.
State of COVID-19 in South Dakota
As of Monday in South Dakota, there were 523 new cases reported last week by the state health department, which updates its state-wide numbers weekly. Overall, there have been 3,133 deaths in the state, according to data provided by the department.
As of Jan. 11, there were 52 residents hospitalized, with 14 of them being considered new hospitalizations, the data shows. The CDC reported the community levels of COVID-19 in both Minnehaha and Lincoln counties are "low."
In Minnehaha County, more than 182,000 people (or 94.7%) have completed at least one dose of the vaccination, according to the CDC. Fewer than 140,000 people (or 72.4%) have completed the primary series, the national health agency said.
More than 72% of residents in Minnehaha County have completed the primary series, according to the national health agency. Data for booster doses was unavailable.
With data provided from the CDC, there have been 8.9 new hospital admissions of confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population with data through Jan. 11 in Minnehaha County. The national health agency said about 4% of staffed inpatient beds are in use by patients with confirmed COVID-19 cases in Minnehaha County.
Inside the Avera network, Basel said there has been a steady number of hospitalizations between 30 and 50 since August.
“It’s really been remarkably flat, but it hasn’t gone away and has stayed pretty constant, (the) number of patients we have in the hospital that have COVID," Basel said. "We’ve had relatively few, probably single digits that are dying from it these days, which is much, much different than a year ago."
This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: What SD doctors want you to know about the COVID-19 variant XBB.1.5