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Will XBB.1.5 Surge in Chicago Area? Experts Brace for Rise Similar to East Coast – NBC Chicago

With a new, highly contagious COVID variant known as XBB.1.5 quickly rising in the US, particularly in the East Coast, what will that mean for the Chicago area?

Experts say it’s likely the variant, which is believed to be even more transmissible and has been nicknamed the “kraken” variant, will grow in the Midwest and Chicago area in the coming days and weeks.

The variant currently makes up an estimated 27.6% of cases in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It continues to make up a majority of cases in the Northeast, with the variant believed to be responsible for more than 70% of COVID infections.

In the Midwest, however, XBB.1.5 recently rose in numbers to 7.3%, up from 6% of cases last week, CDC data showed.

And experts believe that number will continue to grow.

“Yeah, we definitely expect that this virus, this variant will continue to increase in proportion,” Hannah Barbian, a virologist who tracks COVID variants with Rush University Medical Center. “So likely what we’ve seen in the East Coast, will will happen in Chicago as well.”

Barbian noted that genetic sequencing has already detected the variant in samples collected in the Chicago area.

“We’ve seen a few XBB.1.5. in Chicago,” she said.

dr Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said Tuesday that the city is monitoring the variant and does expect numbers to rise. She noted last week the variant is “clearly more infectious” than other variants, “meaning it’s spreading more easily” and “outcompeting the other variants.”

“I’m expecting to see some increase in cases,” she said during a Facebook Live Tuesday. “New York is not getting overwhelmed with hospitalizations, which is great. They are up, not surprisingly, because cases are up, but again, we have tools, we have vaccines, we have treatments that can help keep this hopefully under control. So it wouldn’t surprise me to see an increase in cases. It also wouldn’t surprise me if we move from that medium to that high level.”

The highly contagious “recombinant” variant is composed of two different BA.2 strains.

dr Ashish Jha, White House COVID czar, tweeted last week that the variant is likely more immune evasive, even “more than other omicron variants.”

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, described it as the most transmissible version of COVID yet.

Experts believe a mutation allowing the variant to bind better to cells is behind its ability to spread so quickly.

“The virus needs to bind tightly to cells to be more efficient at getting in and that could help the virus be a little bit more efficient at infecting people,” Andrew Pekosz, a virologist at Johns Hopkins University, told CNBC.

Jha echoed that finding, saying the variant “binds more tightly to the human ACE receptor,” which can affect contagiousness.

While it’s not clear where the variant originated exactly, Arwady said it has so far not shown signs of leading to more severe infections.

“They are seeing some increase in hospitalizations in older folks in the Northeast, but that seems to be at least based on what you know, I’m reading and hearing from folks, that seems to be based as much on the fact that they’ re seeing just a surge overall… and so with that increase, it seems like we’re just seeing more older people get infected and if they’re not up-to-date, especially with their vaccines, they are somewhat more likely to be hospitalized,” she said during a Facebook Live last week. “But no, I haven’t seen anything suggesting that this new subvariant is clearly making people sick. I think we’ll learn more as we follow it.”

While there are significant concerns surrounding the new strain, it remains an omicron subvariant, Arwady added, which offers less risk than if the variant were in an entirely different family.

“At this point, it’s just another subvariant,” she said. “And the thing worries me the most, as always, is people who aren’t up-to-date with their vaccine. We want people to be up-to-date and then other than that, it’s just another version of COVID at at this point.”

Experts have said the bivalent COVID booster appears to offer some protection against the newer strains, particularly against severe illness, in large part because they remain under the omicron family.

“It does look like the vaccine, the bivalent booster is providing continued protection against hospitalization with these variants,” Pekosz told CNBC. “It really emphasizes the need to get a booster particularly into vulnerable populations to provide continued protection from severe disease with these new variants.”

But Jha noted that for those who had infections before July or who haven’t received a bivalent COVID booster shot, protection is much lower.

“Right now, for folks without a very recent infection or a bivalent vaccine, you likely have very little protection against infection,” he tweeted.

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