The “Kraken” is here.
The COVID-19 omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 — which has been dubbed “Kraken” (after the mythical sea monster) because it’s easier to transmit and not as easy to defend against as some other strains — has officially been detected in Travis County, according to Austin Public Health.
Last week, Austin Public Health announced that another strain of omicron XBB.1 had been identified in surveillance. Now it has found XBB.1.5.
The XBB.1.5 strain now accounts for 27.6% of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S., according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and New Mexico region, it accounts for 16.6% of cases.
When the first of the XBB variants was detected here last week, Dr. Desmar Walkes, the Austin-Travis County health authority, said that the timing of its arrival along with other respiratory viruses was concerning.
“This new subvariant is making its way into our community right as many people were indoors gathering with others during the cold and over the holidays,” she said. “When mixed with a flu infection, the combination can cause serious illness for those at-risk such as children and seniors.”
What’s different with XBB.1.5 COVID variant?
It is called the Kraken because of its transmissibility. In December, it went from 1% of all COVID-19 cases to 40% of cases by the end of the month.
It is expected that people who have not yet had COVID-19 are likely to become infected with XBB.1.5 because of its transmissibility and because of more public gathering happening without masking.
Here’s what we know about the XBB variants:
- XBB variants have rapidly replaced other subvariants in the U.S. They did the same in Europe earlier.
- The bivalent booster (the updated booster) still provides a level of protection and reduces the risk of hospitalization.
- XBB variants are resistant to existing COVID-19 treatments such as monoclonal antibody infusions. This is particularly worrisome for people who are immunocompromised.
- XBB variants do appear to respond to the antiviral treatments available to lessen symptoms.
- The symptoms of XBB variants are the same as other COVID-19 variants: cough, congestion, exhaustion, fever, sore throat, nausea, diarrhea and headaches.
The XBB.1.5’s main difference is a mutation of one of the spike proteins that makes it more infectious. That makes it easier to latch onto receptors in the body and begin to reside in cells in places like the nose, throat and lungs before spreading elsewhere in the body.
Like the other XBBs, it can get past some of the other defenses we’ve developed, such as the monoclonal antibodies.
What does our COVID-19 spread look like locally?
Last Thursday, the CDC moved the COVID-19 transmission levels in Travis, Williamson and Bastrop counties from low to medium. Hays and Caldwell counties have been at the high level for two weeks. This follows months of all the area counties being at a low level.
Levels are adjusted every Thursday afternoon.
Because the level of spread has increased, Austin Public Health is recommending that all people wear masks when social distancing is not possible, and people who are at risk for severe complications should wear masks in all public spaces. Caldwell and Hays counties should follow the recommendations for an area with a high level of spread, which is masking in public for everyone.
Austin Public Health already has been requiring masks again in all health facilities since mid-December.
Transmission levels (the number of cases per 100,000 people), are between 122.1 and 187.8, depending on the county, which is up from below 60 during most of last fall.
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What can you do to protect yourself?
- Consider wearing a mask again. You can get free N95 masks at local pharmacies. Use the CDC’s mask-locator tool to find a site with free masks.
- Get vaccinated and stay up-to-date with boosters, which are now available for people ages 6 months and older. You can find boosters at most pharmacies locally, though it’s a good idea to make an appointment to make sure they have the right dose for you. Find locations at vaccines.gov.
- Stay home if you are sick, and wait until you are fever-free for 24 hours to return to public places, though you should wear a mask for five days after testing positive and try to avoid going out for those five days, even if you are free of fever.
- Have COVID-19 home tests on hand and test even if you think it is just cedar fever or a cold. Free mail-order rapid antigen COVID-19 test kits are available through covid.gov/tests. Households are eligible for another round of four tests for a limited time. At-home COVID-19 test kits are available at APH Neighborhood Centers while supplies last. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also lists community-based testing sites online.