What to know about new COVID variant XBB.1.5 as it's expected in Iowa – Des Moines Register

With a highly contagious coronavirus variant expected to hit Iowa in earnest in the coming weeks, infectious disease specialists and public health experts are urging Iowans to get the bivalent COVID-19 booster shot as soon as possible.
Few of them have so far.
The new COVID-19 offshoot of omicron, called XBB.1.5, has been dubbed by world health leaders as the most transmissible version of the virus yet and has emerged in the United States with a force.
In just one month, from the last week of November to the last week of December, the subvariant rose from less than 1% of total estimated COVID-19 infections nationwide to 40%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Midwest region that includes Iowa is reporting XBB.1.5 makes up 8% of estimated infections as of Dec. 31, the CDC reports. Given that some experts say the virus appears to be five times more contagious than the earlier omicron version, it’s only a matter of weeks before Iowans see a spike in new illnesses.
Everyone is at risk for infection, even those who have so far avoided catching COVID-19, experts say. Some infectious disease specialists also say even the majority of Americans who have already had the coronavirus will likely catch it again.
“A number of people are probably going to become infected,” said Dr. Karen Brust, infectious disease specialist and hospital epidemiologist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
Preliminarily, it doesn’t appear that the virus causes more severe illness in those it infects, but those who are immunocompromised continue to face elevated risk, Brust said.
“They’re not at the advantage of having good immunity after a vaccine, so I still worry about that subpopulation of people,” she said. “They need to do other things to protect themselves against getting sick from COVID.”
Coronavirus vaccines and boosters are still effective in preventing severe disease and death.
In light of the new subvariant making its way into Iowa, local public health officials say it’s especially important Iowans get the bivalent booster, a shot approved by federal officials last year that offers protection against both the omicron strains currently circulating widely and the original strain of the virus.
“We’re really asking people to get their bivalent boosters if they haven’t already,” Brust said.
State and local public health officials continue to push Iowans to be up-to-date on their coronavirus vaccinations, but this new variant has renewed their emphasis on the newest bivalent booster dose.
They say that shot is key to reducing serious illness and reducing the risk of infecting others.
“Getting vaccinated and staying up to date on COVID-19 vaccines remains the best form of protection from serious illness, hospitalization and death,” Iowa Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Sarah Ekstrand said.
Current vaccine rates in Iowa are not enough to reduce spread of the new variant, Brust said.
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According to the most recent data from state public health officials, 60% of the state’s population was fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of December. Fewer than 1 in 6 Iowans have received a bivalent booster dose, the shot designed to protect from omicron strains of COVID-19.
“For whatever reason, the bivalent booster did not have the uptake that we had hoped it would have,” Brust said. “I was hoping that the bivalent booster would be seen the way an influenza seasonal booster was seen, because that’s the way I’m looking at it. Every time I’m going into a respiratory season, I’m going to think about boosting myself with a COVID booster.”
State and Polk County public health officials say they continue to share public messaging around the importance of COVID-19 vaccination. Recently, Polk County Health Department worked with a Des Moines-based church, the Christ Apostolic Temple, to create commercials, including one in Spanish airing this month, that encourage COVID-19 vaccines.
“With the emergence of new COVID-19 variants of concern, we will continue to urge the community to get vaccinated and fully boosted,” said county agency spokesperson Madisun VanGundy
Individuals can sign up for a free COVID-19 vaccine through the Polk County Health Department on its website, immunizepolk.com.
Polk County Health Department and other local public health agencies continue to manage COVID-19 cases like other respiratory viruses, in accordance with recommendations from the state public health department, VanGundy said.
The agency is also continuing to emphasize the importance of testing. Polk County Health Department continues to offer free COVID-19 PCR test kits at its building, but officials have found the number of individuals utilizing that service has dramatically dropped in the past year.
In December 2021, VanGundy said Polk County Health Department sent out 2,642 test kits for testing, averaging about 660 tests per week. By December 2022, the agency had sent 104 test kits out, or an average of about 26 tests a week.
However, rapid at-home tests are widely available to Americans, including the four free tests from the federal government that can be shipped directly to each household.
VanGundy said officials encourage individuals to test themselves for COVID-19 when they have symptoms, or before they visit someone who is immunocompromised.
More:With super-contagious XBB.1.5 variant looming, Iowa COVID-19 cases holding steady so far
An infection from XBB.1.5 has the same symptoms as an infection with earlier versions of the coronavirus. Symptoms, which can range from mild symptoms to severe illness, can appear between 2 to 14 days after exposure.
According to the CDC, symptoms of COVID-19 include:
Public health experts and health care providers continue to recommend the same strategies to keep yourself and others around you healthy. First and foremost is getting vaccinated, Brust said. The primary coronavirus vaccine series and boosters are available at most pharmacies, or through your health care provider.
Individuals should also continue to wear masks to reduce the risk of infection, especially in crowded indoor spaces. They should also wash their hands often and should stay home when they are feeling sick.
Brust said it’s important for individuals to be informed of current transmission levels in their community and other metrics that highlight the current spread of the virus.
It’s also important to a step back to consider what their risk for infection might be, or the risk for immunocompromised individuals around them, she said. That includes considering how many people may be at an event and its location.
“I use all of those things to determine the way I interact with the outside world, so that’s usually what I tell people to do: consider those things as they go out there,” Brust said.
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The CDC recommends individuals get tested at least five days after the last exposure to COVID-19.
Federal health officials say individuals who are infected, or suspect they are infected, should isolate. Those that test negative do not have to isolate, though they should continue to wear a mask and take other precautions for at least 10 days.
Those that test positive should isolate at home for at least five days, when they are most infectious, according to the CDC. Those who had no symptoms can end isolation after five days, but those experiencing symptoms should continue to isolate and wear a mask for at least 10 days. Individuals with a COVID-19 infection are contagious as long as they are testing positive.
Michaela Ramm covers health care for the Des Moines Register. She can be reached at mramm@registermedia.com, at (319) 339-7354 or on Twitter at @Michaela_Ramm.