Different types of viruses.
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What you need to know

  • Most COVID-19 indicators continue to rise in the U.S.
  • The new subvariant, BA.2.86, is concerning because it is a highly mutated variant.
  • But it’s not all bad news: BA.2.86 is still COVID-19. As Your Local Epidemiologist states, this new variant is still COVID-19, so our immune systems will recognize it.

The United States is still experiencing a summer COVID-19 wave, with most indicators on the rise, including hospital admissions and emergency department visits. The EG.5 subvariant seems to be driving this wave, as it is now the dominant COVID-19 strain in the U.S. and was responsible for 20.6 percent of cases in the country between August 6 and August 19. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization and the CDC are monitoring a new variant. BA.2.86, a highly mutated variant (which means it’s very different from recent variants), has been detected in the U.S., Denmark, the U.K., and Israel. 

Here’s what you need to know about the ongoing summer wave and the new concerning COVID-19 variant.

Is the U.S. still experiencing a COVID-19 wave?

Yes. The most recent data from the CDC shows that indicators, including hospital admissions, emergency department visits, test positivity, and wastewater levels, are still rising nationally. Hospital admissions increased by 21.6 percent and deaths by 21.4 percent between August 6 and August 12. Additionally, emergency department visits for COVID-19 have significantly increased among children younger than 1. Dr. Dean Winslow, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, told Everyday Health that this may be because babies younger than 6 months are not eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, so they’re less protected, which is why it’s important for children and adults in the household who are eligible to stay up to date with their vaccines. Overall, though the numbers are low compared to other periods of the pandemic, these increases are still alarming.

Should I be worried about this new variant, BA.2.86?

While EG.5 is now the dominant strain in the U.S. and is likely driving the current wave, most experts are concerned about BA.2.86, which is now being monitored by the World Health Organization and the CDC. It’s a highly mutated variant, meaning it’s significantly different from the most recent variants, with many genetic changes that could help it avoid a person’s previous immunity from previous infection or vaccination. We don’t yet know if WHO will label BA.2.86 a variant of concern, like Omicron. We also don’t know if the variant will cause more severe disease or be more transmissible.

But it’s not all bad news: BA.2.86 is still COVID-19. As Your Local Epidemiologist states, this new variant is still COVID-19, so our immune systems will recognize it. The variant can also be detected on a PCR test, so it’s easier to track. Plus, we’ll have more information soon; WHO, the CDC, and scientists are working to determine how our immune systems react to BA.2.86 in the real world and how well treatments like Paxlovid work against it.

Will the new vaccines protect against these subvariants?

The upcoming fall vaccines will target XBB.1.5, but experts say they may still protect us against EG.5 because it’s similar to other XBB subvariants. Andrew Pekosz, a virologist at Johns Hopkins University, told NBC News that XBB subvariants have “nearly identical spike proteins, and that’s the basis of the vaccines.” As far as BA.2.86, it’s still too early to tell whether the fall vaccines will protect us against it because its threat or risk is still not clear