7 things to know about the new COVID variant

Omicron XE is a “recombination” of the Omicron BA 1 and BA 2 variants and has so far been discovered in Thailand and the United Kingdom. Health experts warn that XE, as has been the case with other variants, may soon become more widespread.

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So how dangerous and transferable is this new variant, and what should Houstonians know about it? The local COVID expert Dr. Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist for infectious diseases at the UTHealth School of Public Health, tells us everything Houstonians should know.

The answers have been edited for length and clarity.

1. Has the Omicron XE been found in Houston yet?

We have so far discovered three cases in the United States, and they were probably due to travel-related proliferation. But I think one concern – generally not just about XE – is that some communities, some cities or states are cutting back on the testing and sequencing they are doing. And then there is the concern that if we do not look for things, we will not find them.

If I were to say yes or no to whether this variant XE is becoming more widespread, I would say yes …. And that is why public health funding is so important that we keep an eye on what is happening.

2. Do you expect the Omicron XE to be found in Houston soon?

Here’s why we might: this variant XE seems to be a little more transferable than BA 2. Any variant that has the advantage of being more transferable, you may well see cases. But why it might not happen is because we have been vaccinated (not as many people as we should), but many people have been vaccinated and many people have already had COVID. What we do not yet know is how much protection a previous infection would give you against this new variant.

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3. How dangerous is Omicron XE?

There is virtually no data on its severity, or whether it can avoid any immunity you have through infection or vaccination. But of course we are keeping a close eye on it, at least in England. But the fact that federal COVID funds have not been approved by Congress will limit our efforts to keep up with what is happening. We pretend that the pandemic is over, many people have gone back to a kind of pre-pandemic life … but the virus is not done with us.

At HoustonChronicle.com: As COVID funding stalls and masks fall off, some of Houston’s vulnerable patients feel left out

Although we are seeing an increase in cases in some parts of the country, it is not an increase yet, but there is always that possibility. What this means is that even if there are no hospitalizations or deaths, which is good, just having cases means that the virus does more of itself, and every time it does more of itself, there is a possibility that that mutations can happen and we get new variants. And that’s why, again, even though the number of hospitalizations and deaths has dropped, we really want to get the number of infections down as well. And even though we did a better job than we do in the United States on this, this is a pandemic, and there are parts of the world that still see a lot of infections. We are a global society, people travel. And as we saw with BA 1 in South Africa, it can spread. It can start somewhere and then be around the world.

4. What else do we know about Omicron XE so far?

The best way to protect yourself from XE, should it become more of an issue, is to get yourself vaccinated and boosted, to wear a mask if you are in a situation where you feel like there are a lot of people around you. Basically, what the CDC has said is that you have to make these decisions for yourself. Right now in Houston, our cases are low so you can feel comfortable going to the grocery store without a mask. On the other hand, I wear a mask, because what’s the downside? It’s a small thing to do to protect yourself.

Because so many people do home tests because test sites are shutting down, we may just not have a very sensitive mechanism to quickly determine if or when we see an increase in cases.

5. How is Houston doing right now in terms of COVID cases?

There is concern that we may see a summer rise. Maybe because as mentioned there may be variants, even if it is not XE, it may be a new variant. But also because many cities and counties and states just do not take the precautions of wearing masks, taking social distance and making sure you are in well-ventilated areas if you are inside. So that’s the concern. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen.

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6. How careful should people be about new variants, such as the Omicron XE?

I think we need to keep an eye on it. Do you need to panic about it? No not yet. But certainly, public health people need to see when new variants arrive and see what happens so that communication can be adjusted.

But my concern with others is that if we see an increase in the summer, I’m not sure if we can get people to wear masks again. I just think the ship has sailed. And it does not bode well, especially for older people, immunocompromised, pregnant women, who are at higher risk if they become infected.

With the analogy with the flu, you get a vaccine every year to protect yourself from what is circulating again. It may turn out that way for COVID. But I would say that we have seen faster changes in COVID than we have ever seen in a virus before.

7. It feels like most people have put the pandemic behind them. What public health measures should we still follow?

I used to get really upset when I saw … (people who do not wear their masks correctly), but now there is good evidence that if you have an N95 or a KN94 on and it fits well, is my risk from someone not wearing a mask is pretty low. The CDC has basically bet, and you have to decide for yourself what to do. And it’s going to depend on how risky you are. It’s going to depend on your particular factors. If you are over 80, 85, you should mask.

I will say that my concern about getting COVID is that I do not want long lasting COVID. We are learning more and more about long-COVID. But I do not want to be one of the unfortunate people that it affects their brain … your heart, your kidneys, diabetes – we just learn so much about how this virus can affect your whole body, I do not think it is worth taking a risk. It is clear that not everyone agrees with me.

rebecca.hennes@chron.com

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