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What's the best protection against the new COVID-19 variant? Get a booster, experts say

COVID-19 vaccine vials
Kunal Mahto
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Shutterstock
Health experts point to the new omicron subvariant as a good reminder that it's important to stay current on your COVID-19 booster shots.

With a new COVID-19 variant spreading in the United States, getting the latest booster is the best bet for preventing severe disease, hospitalizations and death — especially for people who are older or at greater risk, said Dr. Kristin Englund, who treats infectious diseases at the Cleveland Clinic.

XBB.1.5 is a new omicron subvariant that last week accounted for about 43% of cases nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While XBB.1.5 is able to evade the protection provided by the original COVID-19 vaccine, the most recent bivalent booster provides some protection against serious illness, said Englund.

That is what the booster, which was designed to protect against omicron strains of the disease, is supposed to do.

“We are trying to keep people, if they do get infected, from getting seriously ill, hospitalized and dying,” she said.

The arrival of a new variant is nothing new, and others will likely arise, said Englund.

“[COVID] seems to mutate very quickly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that these new variants are more deadly,” she said.

Currently, there are fewer COVID-related deaths and hospitalizations than there were a year ago, Englund said.

“Our hospitalizations started to increase right around Thanksgiving, as we expected, with people getting together for the holidays and a little bit more of a bump right after Christmas,” she said. “But we’re starting to see trends decreasing now, which is a wonderful thing to see.”

Beyond vaccination and boosting, there are steps the public can take to prevent the spread of the new variant — especially among those who are at greater risk of serious disease.

For most people, a surgical mask is a sufficient protection for a trip to the grocery store, Englund said.

“If you have other medical issues, if you have bad COPD or asthma or diabetes and you’re at higher risk, then using an N-95 [mask] is not a bad idea,” she said.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems.

To monitor the trends that might be seen in the United States in the future, officials are watching China, which recently lifted its "zero-COVID" policy, Englund said.

In China, “we’re seeing numbers surging in all areas whether it be in infections or hospitalizations or deaths,” she said. “The more virus that is around, the more likely mutations are to develop.”

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