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It's back! New COVID variant -- what to know about the highly mutated strain

Star Beacon - 9/21/2023

Sep. 21—Don't look now but COVID-19 is back.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization are tracking the emergence of a new, highly mutated COVID-19 variant that scientists have labeled BA.2.86.

For now, health officials say they remain well-equipped to deal with the strain if it continues to spread. Early assessments suggest current treatments and tests, as well as upcoming vaccines will work against the virus. But a number of questions remain about the variant, whose mutations could amount to an evolutionary jump on par with the emergence of the Omicron variant in 2021.

During the last four weeks, Ashtabula County Medical Center (ACMC) has seen an increase in the number of patients requesting a COVID-19 test, as well as an increase in the number of those tests coming back positive, according to Emily Brown, a doctor of nursing practice (DNP).

"We have seen an increase in both primary care and emergency department visits for upper respiratory illnesses," she said. "Some of these visits are related to the changing weather in northeast Ohio, as well as allergies. We are also moving into the cold, flu, and RSV season so the uptick is expected."

At the Ashtabula County Health Department in Jefferson, Director of Nursing, David Shumate, said the current rise in cases is above the levels health officials saw through the summer, but also significantly lower than prior years at this same time of year.

The leading variants in Ohio stem from the XBB strain, but there have been a few cases of the BA 2.86 variant found in Ohio, he said.

"This strain is being watched closely to understand the risks it poses to the public, including the possibility of increased ability to spread," Shumate said. "The leading symptoms being reported for all variants are headaches, sinus congestion, fatigue, and fevers."

The new variant first raised concerns earlier this month after scientists who track variants noticed a handful of new sequences showing up in global virus databases with a large number of genetic changes different from other circulating strains.

BA.2.86's mutations include changes that could help it dodge the body's immune defenses from prior infections or vaccinations.

Authorities still consider BA.2.86 technically a part of the Omicron variant family and has been detected all over the world, including the U.S.

For now, it is too early to know for sure whether BA.2.86 will cause new or worse symptoms, health officials said.

"Thankfully, the current variant is not causing a significant number of hospital admissions," Brown said. "After three years of COVID-19, patients are proactive in seeking treatment with their healthcare provider to prevent hospitalization."

ACMC expects to have the updated COVID-19 vaccine available before the end of the month. It replaces the Bivalent vaccine, which was put on hold by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The updated vaccine is not a booster, health officials said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends treating COVID-19 with annual vaccinations similar to what is done with the flu. Patients who did not receive any of the previous COVID-19 vaccines can receive this one. And, patients who did receive all the previous vaccines and boosters, are encouraged to get the updated vaccine.

"The updated vaccine was developed to include protection against the most current variants of COVID-19," Brown said. "This is similar to how the flu shot is formulated each year to focus on the strain that is circulating. Vaccine updates like this are much like updating your operating system on your cell phone. It is needed in order to stay current and protected."

Shumate reminds area residents to report all home COVID-19 positive tests to your local health department. The COVID guidance to follow for the public can be found on the Ashtabula County Health Department website, the CDC website, or on the Ohio Department of Health website.

"At this time, the CDC reports that the upcoming monovalent vaccines being produced for this fall show protection for people from both the XBB variants and the BA variant," Shumate said. "The Ashtabula County Health Department will announce on our website and social media accounts when we have the new COVID vaccines available for the public."


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