COVID Update for February 2023
The United States recently marked the third anniversary of the first confirmed case of COVID-19. Since 2020, the original coronavirus disease has mutated into numerous variants, including Alpha, Delta, and Omicron, and subvariants have mutated from those variants.
Currently, XBB.1.5, a new subvariant of Omicron, is now the dominant subvariant in the country. In early December 2022, XBB.1.5 caused less than 10% of COVID cases. In the week ending January 28, 2023, XBB.1.5 accounted for 61.3 percent of COVID cases, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Scientists are concerned about XBB.1.5 (nicknamed “Kraken”) because the subvariant has picked up mutations that help it evade immunity from vaccination and previous infections.
“Viruses typically mutate to become more contagious and less severe; it appears that this is happening with this strain of the coronavirus,” Dr. Henry Redel, the chief of infectious disease at Saint Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey, told HuffPost.
With each variant comes certain symptoms. For example, the original Omicron variant caused fatigue, runny nose, sneezing, and muscle aches.
The most common symptoms that frontline doctors have identified with XBB.1.5 include:
• Body Aches
• Sore throat
So far, doctors have not seen patients with XBB.1.5 having loss of smell and loss of taste, which were common symptoms of the original COVID-19.
The type of symptoms patients develop usually depends on their genetic makeup, whether they have a chronic disease, or a prior injury, Dr. Martin Krsak, an infectious disease expert at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, told HuffPost. Each variant and how it infects cells in the body more than likely impacts the type of symptoms patients will experience, Dr. Krsak added.
Health officials continue to encourage the public to stay up to date with their vaccines and boosters. The updated COVID shot targets newer variants of Omicron. Still, it does not seem to work well at preventing XBB.1.5 infections, considering there are so many new infections in the community, Dr. Julie Parsonnet, an infectious diseases specialist with Stanford Health Care, told HuffPost.
The combination of updated COVID shots, the fact that there has not been a rapid increase in deaths, and an immense amount of immunity gained from past infections continue to protect people from severe outcomes and could possibly lessen the XBB.1.5 wave, according to Dr. Eric M. Poeschla, the head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. In addition, health officials say antiviral COVID treatments, such as Paxlovid, remdesivir, and molnupiravir should still work in treating Omicron variants.
Are Rapid In-home COVID Tests Accurate?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, people who were experiencing what they thought were COVID symptoms had to wait to get results from their doctor’s office to confirm whether the novel virus actually infected them. As the virus continued to spread, COVID tests became available over the counter so that people could test themselves at home. The COVID-19 antigen diagnostic self-test gave rapid results. People who had a negative result were urged to repeat the test to reduce their risk of a false negative test result.
For the past two years, a team at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Chan Medical School has been studying the accuracy of rapid in-home antigen tests. Antigens are foreign substances, such as bacteria or viruses, that enter the body and cause the immune system to produce antibodies against them.
In an article for The Conversation, two of the UMass team members, Nathaniel Hafer and Apurv Soni, said the group made two major observations in an analysis of approximately 150 people who tested positive for COVID-19:
• Over-the-counter tests were able to detect both the Omicron and Delta variant.
• Taking two tests 24 to 36 hours apart is critical with rapid tests because they are more likely to detect an infection among actively contagious people. In comparison, a single rapid test detected far fewer infections.
The UMass team conducted further studies, one of which was in 2021, to determine whether the mass distribution of in-home COVID tests can reduce virus transmission. The study focused on Washtenaw County, Michigan, where two communities that makeup 140,000 of the total county population of 370,000 used more rapid tests and prevented an average of 40 cases of COVID-19 per day during the Delta variant surge. The team’s findings suggested that rapid antigen tests are a critical public health tool that can help reduce the spread of disease during a surge.
Another question that investigators wanted answered was whether people would report their in-home COVID test results to health departments. So, in a test that was also conducted in Michigan, an initial analysis of the data found that 98 percent of participants agreed to send their test results to their state health department, but just about 1 in 3 participants who were at the highest risk of infection (those who did not wear masks in public and were not vaccinated) sent in their results.
The team says its studies are ongoing so that they can continue to gain more insights into how people use COVID-19 rapid antigen tests.
How to Protect Yourself From COVID Outdoors
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials suggested that people were less likely to be infected with the virus during outdoor activities. While outdoor activities are still relatively safer than crowded indoor activities, there is still a chance of catching COVID at an outside event, especially since the XBB.1.5 Omicron variant is highly contagious and prompts concerns that it evades immunity from vaccination or infection.
So, “the more transmissible a variant is indoors, the more transmissible it is in outdoor settings, too,” Maimuna Majumder, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and a computational epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, told NPR.
So additional precautions are necessary. Here are ways to protect yourself:
Here’s how to protect yourself:
• Mask up if you are in a crowd.
• If you are hosting an outdoor event, ask guests to take a rapid COVID test.
• Beware of different kinds of outdoor tents. Some tents have sidewalls that limit the airflow.
• Wear a mask even though you are going indoors briefly. It’s possible to catch the virus in fleeting encounters.
• Check yourself for symptoms.