Rapid growth: new COVID variant taking over

Public health experts estimate that XBB.1.5 is 40% more infectious than any previous variant, which is why it spreads so quickly.

COVID cases related to a new Omicron variant have been doubling in the United States every nine days.

XBB.1.5, the new variant, is well on its way to becoming the dominant strain of COVID in this country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It initially took off in the Northeast, where it makes up more than 70% of COVID cases. Now, XBB.1.5 has started showing up here in the Northwest.

Public health experts estimate that XBB.1.5 is 40% more infectious than any previous variant, which is why it spreads so quickly. The new variant is a genetic blend of two previous Omicron variants. That combination has given it the power to get through the immunity that many people have built up from previously contracting COVID, or immunity gained by getting the latest Omicron-targeted booster.

While experts are saying that we still get strong protection against hospitalization and death from these two providers of immunity, those over age 65 or with other risk factors remain at increased risk for severe infection. They also point out that masking provides some of the strongest protection available for you and those around you.

XBB.1.5: Your Questions Answered

Members of the Vashon Medical Reserve Corps and staff of Vashon EOC have compiled some questions and answers regarding the new, rapidly spreading Omicron variant XBB.1.5.

How worried should we be about XBB.1.5?

New COVID variants arise through random mutation and subsequently become dominant because they can evade prior immunity or because they are better at infecting our cells. Mutations in the XBB variant allow both.

It’s too early to know if the new variant will cause more serious disease than the original Omicron, but most experts believe it’s unlikely to do so. However, it’s important to understand that COVID never left, and any increase in the number of infections has consequences.

COVID still kills around 400 people per day in the United States. More infections with a new highly infectious variant can be a serious development.

This rapid spread of a new variant really sounds like one year ago, when Omicron was first infecting dozens of people a day on Vashon. Is that right?

As explained above, the new XBB.1.5 variant has been spreading even faster than the original Omicron strain and has been moving west, now arriving in the Pacific Northwest. However, there are some differences from January 2022:

• After three years of pandemic weariness and dread, many people have dropped their guard and no longer take mask-wearing, vaccination, and testing seriously. That change in behavior works against us because it helps spread COVID.

• On the other hand, we have gained some immunity in our local population that we did not have one year ago. Many more people have built up immunity from having had COVID. Plus, a number of us have received an Omicron-targeted booster.

These two things work well together to help protect against serious disease. It would be helpful if more people got the booster; as of now, 30% of Vashon’s 65-and-older population has not yet received the bivalent vaccine. The percentage is significantly worse for younger people.

• We now have easily available home tests so people can tell if they have COVID, so they know to isolate to prevent the spread of XBB.1.5. A home COVID test may be negative even when a person has symptoms, so we recommend that people isolate and test at the appearance of symptoms, and test again in 48 hours if possible.

• Home test results are not reported to public health agencies, so we are less able to track the progress of the disease. Wastewater testing may provide a way to monitor COVID levels in the community, but is not available on Vashon and is only done in a few nearby communities.

• Finally, the tripledemic really complicates things. On top of COVID, vulnerable people need to worry about getting seasonal influenza (flu) and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV). That’s particularly true for older people.

Why would XBB.1.5 be a particular problem on Vashon?

The median age for Vashon residents is 54 years. That’s nearly 20 years older than the median age on the King County mainland. That’s a particular problem because there’s no doubt that COVID hits seniors particularly hard.

Around 90% of those hospitalized for COVID are 65 years or older. That’s why it is so important for seniors to be extra vigilant now that XBB.1.5 has arrived in the Northwest. Everybody in that older age group should think twice before going to public places where people aren’t masking.

If you’re having a small gathering, ask everyone to take a home test before arriving. And, wearing an N95 mask helps protect against all three tripledemic diseases.

COVID Risk Level: Still Elevated

COVID hospitalizations continue at a concerning rate in our three-county COVID risk pool so the VashonBePrepared COVID Risk Advice Tool remains stuck in the yellow Elevated Risk zone.

Data for the risk assessment comes from the state Department of Health’s COVID dashboard. We aggregate information from King, Pierce, and Kitsap counties. That’s because ferry system statistics show the equivalent of one-third of the island’s population makes round-trip ferry journeys to the mainland each day where they may be exposed to COVID while they work, attend school, shop, or receive medical care.

At this Elevated Risk level, it’s smart for everyone to wear an N95 mask indoors in public.

People who are unvaccinated, at high risk from COVID, or living with someone at high risk, should avoid non-essential indoor public activities.

If you must be indoors in a public place, it’s extremely important to wear an N95 mask if you are unvaccinated, at risk from COVID for health reasons, and/or live and spend time with someone at risk from COVID, and/or regularly exposed to COVID risk in work or group settings such as retrail, school or commuting.

It is also recommended to test at home before gathering with friends and family; to get the bivalent COVID vaccine if you have not already done so; to maintain good ventilation at home and at work, and to avoid individuals with suspected or confirmed COVID.

If exposed to COVID, wear a mask in public and avoid contact with those at high risk for 10 days, and always home-test if you have symptoms.

If you test positive:

• Isolate for at least five full days after the onset of COVID symptoms (or positive test if asymptomatic).

• Remain isolated until you test negative.

• Avoid those at risk and wear a mask when indoors around others for 10 full days after the onset of COVID symptoms or a positive test even if testing negative after 5 days.

• If you are immunocompromised, discuss additional prevention actions with your healthcare provider.

Safety Tip: Be Prepared for a Cardiac Event

By now, you are probably one of the millions of people who have seen Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin collapse with cardiac arrest on live television.

If so, you may now have a better grasp of how important it can be to be ready for a cardiac arrest event. A skilled emergency medical team saved Hamlin’s life by acting quickly to perform CPR and other emergency measures. Key to that situation was the quick application of a defibrillator. A public access Automated External Defibrillator (AED) device gives you voice instructions to save someone’s life.

A CNN video shows how simple it can be.

Do these three things if a person goes into cardiac arrest.

1. Call 9-1-1. Be ready to give your location because if you are on a cell phone the call center may not automatically know where you are.

2. Begin chest compressions with strong pressure at a rapid rhythm of 120 per minute (for an adult). It helps a lot if you have taken CPR training. (Instructions are different for infants and young children. See the CNN video link, above.)

3. Look for an AED symbol, like the one pictured in the graphic accompanying this article. It marks the location of an AED. Follow the voice prompts on the unit to shock the person’s heart back into rhythm.

It’s a good idea to install the PulsePoint phone application on your smartphone (bit.ly/PulsePointApp). It will tell you where an AED might be available.

So far, a total of 13 AEDs have been registered at PulsePoint on Vashon and Maury Islands, primarily at businesses and other public places.

Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) has plans this year to partner with PulsePoint to promote public access to defibrillation devices on the island.

VIFR also plans to roll out additional resources to enhance CPR training across Vashon.