Four rows of seven orange circles, some with COVID-19 microbes in them.
Illustration: PGN

Leer en español

What you need to know

  • The next wave could be driven by a group of Omicron spinoffs rather than one dominant variant of concern.
  • The new versions of Omicron have the ability to evade existing immunity and even show signs of rendering existing treatments ineffective. 
  • Get your updated booster by Halloween to ensure that you are protected before Thanksgiving.

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the U.S. continue to decline. As a result, many Americans have abandoned masking and are uninterested in boosters. But new versions of the Omicron variant are emerging around the world and raising concerns. Within the U.S., the Northeast is once again showing signs of increasing COVID-19 transmission

It’s still unclear what this winter will look like for the U.S., but what’s certain is that the pandemic is not over. Here’s what we know so far. 

Will there be another COVID-19 wave this winter?

Many scientists expect there to be a wave this winter. People are taking fewer pandemic precautions as the weather cools and indoor activity increases. The good news is that most Americans have some sort of protection against COVID-19, from either prior infection or vaccination. 

But several new descendants of the original Omicron variant have been popping up around the world. Each of them has the ability to evade existing immunity, and some of them show signs of rendering monoclonal treatments ineffective. The severity of the expected wave will likely depend on how many people get the new bivalent booster as well as human behavior around masking and testing. 

Which variants are currently most concerning?

Experts warn that we may not see one dominant variant of concern this winter but rather a group of Omicron sublineages that each have some ability to evade immunity. Some of these Omicron spinoffs have already been cited as potential reasons for increasing case numbers in countries in Europe and Asia.

In the U.S., BA.5 continues to be the dominant variant, but its prevalence has decreased to 68 percent of circulating COVID-19 viruses, compared to 87 percent at its peak in late August. Other versions of the Omicron variant have started to increase. BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 have grown significantly over the past couple of weeks, together making up 11 percent of circulating viruses nationwide. In the New York and New Jersey area, these two strains represent 20 percent of infections. Two other Omicron spinoffs, BA.4.6 and BF.7, now account for 12 percent and 5 percent of circulating viruses, respectively. 

The XBB sublineage, though not yet significant in the U.S., has been raising concerns elsewhere in the world due to its ability to seemingly evade antibodies generated by BA.5 breakthrough infections.

How well will our vaccines and boosters work against these new variants? 

It’s unclear how well our vaccines and boosters will work against new variants. But since all of the current COVID-19 strains being tracked are Omicron sublineages, the BA.5 bivalent boosters should offer at least some sort of protection against severe disease. The boosters should hold up well against the BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 strains in particular, as they are direct descendents of BA.5. 

Despite the uncertainty around vaccine and booster effectiveness in the face of new variants, staying up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations is our best bet. Get the updated booster by Halloween to ensure that you are protected for gatherings during Thanksgiving and throughout the holiday season. Everyone ages 5 and older can now get an updated booster two months after completing their primary series or receiving their first booster. 

Wearing N95 masks in indoor public settings can also help reduce the impact of a winter surge, and testing before and after travel and holiday gatherings will be crucial to limiting transmission.