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COVID-19 hospitalizations have risen again in Texas. Here’s what to know about a new variant

 Blood sample for Covid-19 Omicron EG.5.1 (Eris) RT-PCR test. A new Covid-19 variant which has descended from the rapidly spreading Omicron and was first flagged in the UK (United Kingdom).<br/>
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Blood sample for Covid-19 Omicron EG.5.1 (Eris) RT-PCR test. A new Covid-19 variant which has descended from the rapidly spreading Omicron and was first flagged in the UK (United Kingdom).

A North Texas epidemiologist talks about why EG.5 has spread so quickly, and whether new booster shots expected this fall will be effective against the variant.

Texas isn’t immune to the uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations across the country.

State data from the first week of August reported a 15% increase in one week. A new variant called EG.5 is believed to be behind the spread.

KERA’s Sam Baker talks with epidemiologist Dr. Saad Omer, head of the new school of public health at UT Southwestern Medical Center, about how EG.5 compares to other existing variants.

Is EG.5 more or less dangerous than other variants we've seen so far? 

We don't have any evidence that per infection it has a higher probability of death or hospitalization. But since it's evading immunity a little bit, it seems to be causing somewhat increased levels of hospitalization and death.

Why is EG.5 spreading so fast to the point of becoming the dominant variant as people are reporting it?

The main reason is that as we develop immunity to previous variants, the virus finds it advantageous to evolve in directions where it can evade that immunity.

That doesn't mean that we are going back to the earlier parts of the pandemic in terms of the intensity of spread.

But it also means that even when a variant evolves to spread more efficiently, it does not necessarily mean that it is becoming more dangerous because our previous levels of immunity often protect us from severe disease - even if immunity doesn't protect us completely from infection.

Will the new booster that's expected this fall address EG.5?

We'll see how the data evolve, but it is very, very likely to protect against the more severe consequences of this virus.

People who are immunocompromised, the elderly, young infants, pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of this virus. Others also get infected. But these groups are particularly vulnerable to bad outcomes after the infection happens.

So therefore, while the booster will be recommended to a lot of people, the groups that I mentioned are particularly targeted for immunization, and these groups should pay close attention to the availability of this booster and should get vaccinated as soon as they can.

So if you got last year's booster, should you get another now and wait for the new one, or wait for one specifically made for EG.5?

I think it's close enough that it's okay to wait, but I think in certain circumstances, like immunocompromised people or those who are going through sort of procedures that make them immunocompromised, it's always useful to talk to your physician because a lot of people have some odds circumstances.

But for the general population, I think initially we thought the booster will be available in September, though it seems it will be available in October. So, you know, I think it may be okay for a lot of people to wait until they're able to get the new booster.

Should you get a COVID booster when you get shots for RSV and flu?

Yes. I think it's more convenient for a lot of people to just have one vaccination visit, etc. Irrespective of whether you're getting it on the same visit or not, plan to get all three shots if you're eligible.

So one shot doesn't have any kind of adverse effect on the others if you get them at the same time?

That's correct. And that's the evidence we have and that's what the public health authorities recommend.

After enough boosters, though, for COVID, can you reach a point where they work against you or another booster? 

Well, the considerations of safety and sustained efficacy are baked into these recommendations that are developed for various groups. And so I think for the general public, if it is recommended for you, these factors have been considered by various groups that have looked at the data and there is a net benefit to your group therefore that those are recommended.

And I say that because I come from a little bit of a perspective of being involved in this kind of decision-making or recommendation development. I serve on the World Health Organization group that actually develops these recommendations for various countries.

The countries look at the broader recommendations and they look at their own data and develop their own country’s specific recommendations. And the U.S. recommendations come from the CDC or the FDA.

But having said that, I can tell you as these recommendations are developed, these factors are considered, and data are looked at. And for the groups for which the vaccine is recommended and emphasized, you know, these considerations are baked into those recommendations.

You see very few people wearing masks or taking other precautions against COVID these days. Granted, restrictions have been relaxed, but are we taking unnecessary chances? 

We should be a society that is tolerant of people taking precautions for what they think is their risk. If they want to wear masks, we should be accommodating of that. Beyond that, I think this is not the time to have recommendations for widespread masking based on what we are facing.

On the other hand, I think some of the passive measures like:

  • HEPA filtration of the indoor air in homes and offices

  • Using MERV 13 filters for the air conditioning system
  • Or even in places where it's not as hot as Texas, where you could actually open windows with a reasonable level of comfort, using natural ventilation.
  • These are some so-called passive measures that we can institute in our offices and our schools, in our public buildings, and in our homes.

    RESOURCES:

    Covid Eris: What to know about new variant EG.5 dominating U.S. cases

    Coronavirus FAQ

    Track Covid-19 in Texas

    Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

    Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.