There’s a new subvariant of COVID circulating. Here’s what you need to know.

These new versions of Omicron now account for over half all cases in the U.S.

By Sarah AschJune 17, 2024 11:25 am, ,

There is a new set of COVID-19 strains circulating in the U.S. in time for a possible summer surge.

The “FLiRT” strains are subvariants of Omicron, and they now account for more than 50% of COVID cases in the U.S. — up from less than 5% in March.

Some experts have suggested that the new variants could cause a summer surge in COVID cases. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reports that COVID viral activity in wastewater is low.

Dr. Catherine Troisi, a professor at the School of Public Health at UT Health Houston, said these new subvariants are spreading better than previous iterations of the virus.

“The COVID virus changes very quickly,” she said. “And these variants are just the latest ones. They appear to be more infectious. Either they’re spreading better or they are evading our immune system better. But luckily, there’s no indication that they cause more serious disease.”

Troisi said the folks most at risk for serious illness from this variant are the same groups who have always faced a higher risk from COVID — the elderly and people with underlying conditions.

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She said it’s not unreasonable to think there could be a surge of cases this summer.

“We can look historically and say that in the last  four years, we’ve seen surges in the summer for various reasons. So, you know, it’s not unlikely we’ll see that this year,” she said. “Although a lot of people, probably about 97% of the country, has some sort of immunity. So even if you get sick, we’re hoping not to see those hospitalizations and deaths [go up].

“Other than that, it’s hard to tell because we don’t have testing results like we did earlier in the pandemic. So we can look at hospitalizations –they’re up a little bit in the country. We can look at deaths – they’re not up. And the same is true in Texas as well.”

Troisi said people can mask to protect others if they have symptoms or are worried about exposure in a public place. There is also an updated booster shot that hit the market in fall 2023 that can help increase protection.

“Back in the fall of 2023, there was a recommendation that everybody get an updated booster. Uptake was not very good,” she said. “And then in February, another recommendation was that if you were over the age of 65 or had underlying conditions – because, again, you’re at higher risk of more severe outcomes if you get infected – that you get a second booster. Uptake was even worse on that second booster.

“Now for the fall there’s going to be your recommendation that everybody get a booster. And we probably won’t even call it a booster. We’ll just call it the 2024-2025 vaccine. And the FDA and CDC have made the recommendation that the vaccine be tweaked to include this new variant or one of the children of that variant, to increase immunity.”

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