By Devin Blake
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
The strain of coronavirus known as XBB.1.5 has become the most prevalent in the country.
The strain accounted for 49.1% of reported cases in the country for the week of Jan. 15 through Jan. 21, up from 43% of reported cases the week before, and 30.4% of reported cases the week before that one.
In the beginning of December, the variant was only about 2% of reported cases in the country, said Dr. Benjamin Weston, chief health policy adviser for Milwaukee County.
Currently, the new variant is far more prevalent in the eastern portions of the country, particularly the Northeast.
But local health leaders suggest the same will soon happen in the Midwest.
Here’s what you need to know:
It’s only a matter of time before the variant gets here
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, breaks the country into 10 regions. For the week of Jan. 15 through Jan. 21, the new variant accounted for a vast majority of reported cases in Regions 1, 2 and 3. The new strain accounted for 84.7% of reported cases in Region 1, which comprises Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont; 86.8% of the reported cases in Region 2, which comprises New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands; and 59.7% of the reported cases in Region 3, which comprises Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.
By comparison, in Region 5, which includes Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio, the new strain accounted for 23.8% of reported cases.
But even though it is currently a “bit lower in Wisconsin,” it is only a matter of time, Weston said.
‘You are more likely to be infected’
There is always variance in how strains progress and travel through regions, and there is “no doubt in the coming weeks this is going to gain dominance in Wisconsin as well,” he said.
What is known as “immune evasion” accounts for the speed at which XBB.1.5 is spreading through communities, Weston said. Measures that were successful at preventing infection with previous strains are less likely to prevent infection with this newer one.
Weston said, “The virus is responding and learning. … It seems to some degree, with vaccination and boosting, you are more likely to be infected than you were six months ago.”
Expect more hospitalizations
While it does not seem the illness associated with the new variant is more severe than previous variants, the fact that it spreads so quickly means more people will get infected, resulting in more hospitalizations simply by the sheer number of cases, Weston said.
For the week ending Dec. 6, there were 132 hospitalizations due to COVID-19. For the week ending on Jan. 10, there were 172 hospitalizations due to COVID-19. These figures do not segment the new strain but include all cases of COVID-19.
Precautions to take
Although healthy individuals who become infected with the virus may experience no, little or few symptoms, it is still “important to remember that certain individuals will be at greater risk of getting sick and suffering more severe symptoms, even to the point of hospitalization,” said Kim Litwack, dean of the College of Nursing at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
These people include those over age 65 and those with multiple chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart and lung disease, Litwack said.
Vaccine and boosters remain important
Vaccines and boosters “are effective in reducing the severity of symptoms, preventing hospitalization and death. Those are three very important reasons to get vaccinated,” she said.
Weston concurred, saying that “new data from the CDC shows hospitalization rates were 16 times higher among adults who are unvaccinated compared to those who have received a bivalent booster and 2.7 times higher among adults who are vaccinated but have not yet received an updated bivalent booster.
Vaccination rates in Milwaukee County
As of Jan. 18, 61.9% of eligible county residents have completed a primary series of vaccination, but only 16.5% have received the bivalent booster, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Everyone six months of age and older is recommended to get one updated, or bivalent, booster. But the course of action is different depending on age and which primary series was administered, according to the CDC’s latest update.
The precautions you should take
As with previous strains, other precautions, including wearing a mask, social distancing, regular hand washing and staying home when feeling ill, will also reduce the likelihood of infection.
Weston also emphasized the importance of “high quality” masks, rather than cloth ones.
“Let’s face it,” Litwack said. “Everyone is tired of masking and social distancing. That said, we know those measures work. Every individual needs to make the best choice for themselves and their families.”
Vaccination and testing information
Vaccination and testing information can be found at HealthyMKE or by calling 2-1-1.
Information can also be found by calling the COVID hotline for the City of Milwaukee Health Department, which is 414-286-6800 or by visiting https://city.milwaukee.gov/coronavirus.