If you’ve noticed a sudden resurgence of COVID cases among those around you, you’re certainly not alone in your observations. Once again, COVID numbers are on the rise across the Bay Area, throughout California, and across the nation. This has been termed a “summer surge” by numerous experts. To add complexity to the situation, a new subvariant of the omicron variant, unofficially named “Eris,” has taken center stage in the United States, rapidly becoming the dominant strain. This new development carries significant implications, especially in California.
Unveiling the ‘Eris’ Variant
The name of this emerging subvariant is EG.5, which belongs to the broader omicron family of COVID variants. While the World Health Organization (WHO) has adjusted its naming framework, attributing Greek labels exclusively to “variants of concern,” online discourse has informally dubbed this EG.5 subvariant as “Eris,” in a manner akin to how XBB.1.16 was colloquially named “Arcturus.”
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that EG.5 has rapidly gained dominance in the United States, surpassing the previously prominent XBB.1.16 “Arcturus” subvariant. However, the latter continues to maintain its stronghold in the Western region encompassing California, Arizona, and Nevada. Despite this, CDC predictions hint at EG.5’s imminent ascent to dominance in the same region.
Evaluating COVID Incidence in the Bay Area
In the absence of comprehensive data on positive COVID test outcomes, the monitoring of coronavirus presence in sewage has taken on increased significance as a gauge of infection rates in specific areas. Stanford University’s WastewaterSCAN initiative plays a pivotal role in this endeavor, examining viral presence in wastewater nationwide.
Ali Boehm of WastewaterSCAN reported that current regional trends in the Bay Area show a notable upward trajectory. At present, COVID levels are categorized as medium, reflecting a balance between high and low levels of infection. Furthermore, EG.5 sublineage sequences have been detected in Bay Area wastewater, a significant finding in tracking the spread of the new variant.
Shifting Testing Patterns and Positivity Rates
Many individuals suspecting COVID infection are opting for at-home antigen test kits rather than traditional PCR tests. Notably, California’s Department of Public Health exclusively tracks individuals who receive diagnostic results from PCR tests performed in laboratories. The state’s COVID test positivity rate currently stands at 12.3% based on data pending confirmation from July 31. This rate has been progressively climbing since late June, marking the highest point in 2023.
California’s hospitalization rates for COVID have experienced fluctuations throughout the year. While the numbers markedly declined after the winter surge, they are now on the rise once more. The recent increase is more subdued compared to the national trend. As of July 29, the state reported 906 individuals currently hospitalized with COVID, signifying a 4.9% weekly increase. Nationwide, hospital admissions due to COVID have surged by 12.5%.
Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at UCSF, noted that local hospitalizations for COVID at UCSF have risen to nearly 20 cases, up from around ten in early July. However, these figures remain significantly lower than the peak numbers experienced during the winter months.
Understanding Factors Behind the ‘Summer Surge’
Dr. Chin-Hong highlighted several contributing factors that make the current upswing in COVID cases unsurprising. Firstly, increased summer travel has resulted in a mixture of individuals from varying risk areas, increasing the chances of viral transmission. Secondly, heat waves have prompted people to seek indoor shelter, much like the winter months. Finally, waning immunity among individuals who contracted COVID or received booster shots approximately six months ago, particularly among those over 65, has amplified susceptibility to the virus.
Spotting EG.5 ‘Eris’ Symptoms
Identifying symptoms of the new EG.5 variant is crucial. Chin-Hong emphasized that these symptoms closely mirror those associated with previous COVID variants. Indicators include a runny or stuffy nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing, sore throat, cough, and changes in smell. The CDC’s comprehensive list of potential COVID symptoms encompasses fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the omicron subvariant XBB.1.16, “Arcturus,” has been linked to pink eye symptoms alongside the conventional COVID indicators.
Comparing EG.5 to Predecessor Omicron Subvariants
Chin-Hong framed EG.5 and its ilk as slight variations on a common theme rather than drastically different subvariants. Although successive generations may exhibit slight differences, current evidence does not suggest increased virulence or severity in the case of EG.5. Notably, the forthcoming COVID booster, anticipated to roll out widely in the fall, is designed to target XBB.1.16 and related variants. This development bodes well for combatting EG.5.
Adjusting Behavior Amid Rising Cases
Chin-Hong advised adopting precautionary measures during spikes in COVID cases, even if they seem like regression in the pandemic’s trajectory. Strategies may include wearing a well-fitting N95 mask in crowded indoor spaces, enhancing ventilation for indoor gatherings, and opting for outdoor meetups to minimize transmission risks. Additionally, those at higher risk, including older individuals, the immunocompromised, and those without recent vaccinations, should exercise heightened caution.
Responding to Potential Exposure and Testing
In light of the changing incubation periods due to different variants, taking a COVID test as soon as two days after exposure if symptoms arise is advisable. Testing negative initially does not rule out COVID, so consistent re-testing is recommended to ensure accurate results.
Accessing COVID Testing and Treatments
Locating free COVID tests has become more challenging, given the evolving landscape of testing options. Pharmacy-bought at-home antigen tests are a swift but relatively costly solution. PCR testing offers higher accuracy, though results may take longer to process. Options for free COVID testing can be found on platforms like MyTurn.ca.gov/testing and the CDC’s COVID test locator. Individuals with health insurance might qualify for coverage of testing costs through providers.
For those who test positive, seeking Paxlovid, a potent antiviral treatment for COVID, is a prudent step. This prescription-based treatment helps alleviate symptoms and reduce the risk of severe illness. Initiating treatment within five days of testing positive is recommended for maximum efficacy.
Empowering Individuals with Knowledge
As COVID continues to shape our lives, staying informed is key. KQED News endeavors to provide actionable insights to navigate the evolving landscape. If you have questions or topics you’d like to explore further, your input fuels our reporting and guides our coverage to meet your needs. From COVID updates to weather challenges and beyond, KQED News remains dedicated to serving your information needs in 2023 and beyond.
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