New subvariant surges as COVID booster vaccination rates remain low

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Another new omicron subvariant XBB 1.5 has surged forward over the last week. The World Health Organization is warning that it is the most transmissible strain to date.

“In the United States it jumped from 25% to 44% in just one week, that’s huge exponential growth,” said 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS Medical Expert Dr. Archelle Georgiou.

XBB subvariants now make up about 15% of the viral load in wastewater in the Twin Cities metro area, which is nearly double what it was last week, according to the Metropolitan Council.

“The good news is we don’t believe that it causes any more serious disease,” said Dr. Georgiou.

The Minnesota Department of Health is stressing the importance of staying up-to-date with COVID vaccines as the virus spreads.

“What we do know is that natural immunity from COVID doesn’t last very long, the immunity you get from the vaccine is more durable it gives you longer protection against more types of COVID so now is the best time to go out and get your vaccine,” said Jennifer Heath, MDH Vaccine Preventable Disease Section Lead. “We are starting to see more spread.”

MDH data shows while nearly 60% of those 65 and older are up to date with their COVID vaccines, fewer than 15% of adults 18 to 49 are up to date. The percentage drops below 12% for children 17 and younger. 

“We haven’t seen people go out and get the bivalent vaccine as quickly as we had hoped they would,” said Heath. “I think of course people are getting tired of hearing about COVID vaccines but I also think a lot of people don’t know about the bivalent booster, I think there’s a lot of work that can be done in terms of awareness.”

She wants the public to understand it’s not too late to receive the bivalent booster.

“What you need to have is your primary series, so that would be two doses of Moderna or two doses of Pfizer,” said Heath. “Two months after you have completed your primary series you can get the bivalent booster. Once you have your bivalent booster, you’re up to date.”

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“I believe that most people should be up to date with their COVID vaccination, that’s of course aligned with the CDC and the Minnesota Department of Health as well,” said Dr. Georgiou. “If you are up to date, it can decrease transmission between 25-40%, decrease that transmission to other people. It’s not going to completely prevent you from getting COVID but it will decrease your risk of severe illness and hospitalization and one thing I think people also need to remember is being up to date with your vaccinations could also decrease your risk of long COVID.”