RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — One of the most transmissible COVID-19 variants yet has made its way to Central Virginia. Health experts warn omicron subvariant “XBB. 1.5” is already on track to becoming the dominant strain of the virus within the community.
The Commonwealth has paralleled the country as a whole in witnessing a steady increase in COVID-19 cases since November. After plateauing throughout the summer and fall months, cases have steadily risen.
Health professionals like Gonzalo Bearman with VCU Health told 8News, the new subvariant is largely to blame.
“It is now becoming the primary strain of the COVID-19 variant in the community,” Bearman said. “So it’s of concern.”
Experts attribute the recent surge to a number of different factors like the cold weather forcing people to opt for indoor activities, increased travel, and people gathering in large groups for the holidays. Omicron XBB. 1.5 is only exasperating these concerns.
“This new variant is absolutely driving the process,” Bearman said.
Medical advisors do not believe it’s time to panic though. The recent COVID-19 bivalent booster has proven to exhibit at least some degree of efficacy against the new strain. Bearman explained how vaccines are generally between 70% and 80% effective in preventing severe illness. Therefore, local and state health officials — like Brooke Rossheim with the Virginia Health Department — encourage members of the community to update their immunizations as soon as possible.
“Vaccination is effective,” Rossheim reiterated.
While the new strain does appear to respond to current vaccines, new — differently composed — variants are bound to emerge.
“[Mutation] is one of the things viruses do,” Rossheim explained.
Previous vaccines, in part, addressed each deviating, newer variation of the virus. So, health professionals urge everyone to be as up-to-date as possible in their vaccination journey. They remind the community, if you haven’t received your boosters yet, it’s not too late.
“If you’re getting boosted now, you’re getting immunity not only from earlier strains, but more recent strains,” Bearman said. “That’s going to have a greater activity, obviously, with the evolving variants that we’re seeing now.”
With each mutation, it becomes increasingly possible the new strain will be less susceptible to available treatment and vaccination options.
Virginia, along with the rest of the country, continues to employ an “endemic” response to addressing COVID-19 concerns throughout the community. Going on three years of recognizing COVID-19’s existence, as the virus evolves, health professionals expect it’s here to stay for an unpredictable amount of time. Therefore, treatment, response, and the community’s mitigation efforts must evolve with it, in order to keep the virus under control.
Public health officials’ efforts remain focused on ensuring the most vulnerable are protected as the virus evolves.
“The best thing we can do is recognize the risk of COVID-19 is not the same for everyone,” Bearman said. “Those at the highest risk should absolutely proceed with getting vaccinated or boosted or revaccinated.”