Surging from less than 5 percent of cases in the first week of December, XBB.1.5 now makes up over 40 percent of all COVID infections in the US. The new variant appears to demonstrate a high level of immune evasion, and is around 40 percent more contagious than the next most virulent strain, though illnesses caused by XBB.1.5 do not seem to be more severe. Weekly rates for new COVID-related hospital admissions are now higher than at any point since February 2022, despite case counts remaining lower than the peak of the summer wave in July 2022 (although it is likely that the vast majority of cases are now identified through home testing, and not reported, making the data unreliable).
The Gist: While the new variant seems to be less likely to create a COVID spike of the magnitude we experienced last winter, hospitalizations rising faster than case counts bears watching. That’s especially true given the current staffing situation in most hospitals, which makes each COVID admission and each caregiver call-out for illness a cause for concern.
Only 15 percent of eligible Americans have received the most recent bivalent booster, leaving the population more vulnerable to this and future variants. Plus, additional funding to support the fight against COVID does not seem to be forthcoming from the new Congress. Beset with surges of COVID, flu, and RSV admissions, hospitals must hope that the end of the holiday season brings some relief.