PROVIDENCE – With the latest round of COVID-19 variants now appearing, some scientists and public-health officials are concerned about the possibility of a new wave of infections as Halloween kicks off the holiday season and the approach of winter finds more people indoors.
“Although predicting the future is not simple, the stars are aligning for a potential winter COVID surge in the U.S.,” Brown University epidemiologist Mark Lurie told The Journal. “Immunity is waning for people who were infected during the omicron wave and vaccine rates are abysmal. … The emergence of new variants is a particular concern.
“Add to this the fact that cases are surging in some parts of Europe, which is often a precursor for the U.S., and that we are no longer systematically measuring new cases, and we have a recipe for a potential winter surge.”
Enter BQ.1 and BQ.1.1
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the older BA.5 omicron variant last summer accounted for the great majority of new cases in the U.S. including in the CDC’s Region 1, which is all six New England states. The variant still accounts for 71.1% of new cases in the region during the latest reporting period, Oct. 9 through Oct. 15 – but the new BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 strains, which did not even register in August, now comprise 7.1% of new cases in the region.
Other variants beginning to emerge include the BA.2.75, with 1.5% of new cases, and BA.2.75.2, with 0.7%. As viruses spread, they naturally mutate, creating new strains.
The CDC says that only about 14.8 million U.S. residents have received the bivalent booster shot, which provides significant protection against the BA.5 variant and is expected to provide some degree of protection against the latest variants.
Cause for some cautious optimism’
In an email to The Journal, state Health Department spokesman Joseph Wendelken wrote: “The variants we have seen for the last several months have all been within the omicron family. While it is still critical that we take precautions like staying home when sick, and getting boosted, this is cause for some cautious optimism. It means that the bivalent booster will hopefully offer significant protection against current circulating variants.”
The latest COVID concern comes as a particularly bad flu season is being predicted for much of America, prompting health care practitioners to urge residents to be vaccinated against influenza. That shot and the bivalent inoculation can be given at the same time.
Lurie noted the mindset of some, saying “despite evidence to the contrary, many people believe – or want to believe – that the pandemic is essentially over, and masking in many places has all but disappeared. With winter approaching, more of our social interactions will occur, unprotected, indoors. Immunity is waning for people who were infected during the omicron wave.”
First human results:Show new COVID-19 booster is safe and triggers an appropriate immune response
Wendelken wrote about the booster shots now available in Rhode Island, stating “they help protect against two strains of COVID-19, the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 and the omicron variant. Everyone 5 or older who has received a primary series of COVID-19 vaccine should get a bivalent booster at least two months after their last dose.
“This recommendation applies no matter how many boosters a person has already received. For example, if a person received their primary series and two booster doses, they should still get a bivalent booster at least two months after their last booster dose. People who are planning to gathering with family and friends this holiday season should absolutely have a primary series of COVID-19 vaccine and be boosted. That is the best way to protect yourself and the people you love.”