Stay informed with new COVID subvariant circulating

Did you throw your masks away? Me neither.

We are back in cold and flu season, faced with lots of choices: The COVID-19 shot, the flu shot and the RSV shot (for 60 and over). We can take them all at once, one at a time, or just one or two. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is safe to take all three at once, a few side effects may occur.

We are told there is a new COVID-19 subvariant circulating now: EG.5. And another one, too, less common: FL.1.5.1. Several of my friends are now getting COVID-19, some for the very first time. They weren't sure they had COVID-19 until they tested for it. Some wondered if they have allergies, a cold, or the flu.

Hospitalizations now are more for exhaustion and dehydration and tend to be affecting the older population. The new variants seem to be milder than those of last year, and this may be due to improved immune function. Also, a virus needs a host to survive.

But even though it is not as bad as original strains, hospitals are getting more patients. Besides vaccines, people are encouraged to wash hands frequently, practice reasonable distancing, and masking in some situations.

What should we expect three-and-a-half years after the first COVID-19 illnesses appeared? If we look at the history of Spanish flu we might get some clues.

Spanish flu (also known as the Great Influenza Epidemic) appeared in the spring of 1918. It eventually infected ⅓ of the world's population — 500 million — with 50 million killed. This strain of flu — H1N1 — seems to be the ancestor of every flu we have had over the past century. All the flus seem to be genetically related.

By 1921 there was still an influenza outbreak. It was milder than the previous years, because the virus became less virulent (this is how a virus survives in the long run.) Those who had survived it the previous two winters had antibodies that further reduced its severity. But there were still some outbreaks that had public health responses. It was not until 1923 that one could say the pandemic had subsided.

Novel viruses such as COVID-19 and the Spanish flu are simply viruses we have not observed before (novel in this case means "new.") There are novel influenza viruses as well as novel coronaviruses, including bird flu and swine flu in recent history. Most novel viruses have several waves before becoming endemic. In the early 1900s, there were no tests or treatments for viruses. The first vaccines didn't appear until World War ll. Had vaccinations happened in 1919-20 perhaps Spanish flu would have ended sooner.

Perhaps this explains why I am seeing masks again. And this could explain the reappearance of free COVID tests starting again. (Each household can get 4 free rapid tests at

Sometimes the only way to differentiate between them is by a test. Sore throat, congestion are common symptoms of COVID-19. People who treat COVID-19 are saying the symptoms are becoming milder and mainly affect the upper respiratory tract.

Even though hospitalizations are increasing, doctors suggest it is harder to tell COVID-19 from a common cold or allergies. The loss of smell has declined, and many seem to recover without Paxlovid, the anti-viral medicine.

So, as the leaves fall and we are called to a new season, stay healthy and informed. Most reports paint a hopeful picture, but it is still good to be prepared.

This is the opinion of Times Writers Group member Barbara Banaian, a professional pianist who lives in the St. Cloud area. Her column is published the first Sunday of the month.

This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Fall season brings cold/flu season, new COVID subvariants