With the changing weather comes virus season. Throughout the pandemic, infectious disease experts have seen an uptick in COVID cases during the fall and winter as more people stay indoors. The latter half of the year is also the time when SARS-CoV-2 mutates into other variants. And this year is no exception. Researchers are keeping an eye on the new variant BA.2.86, or Pirola, as it spreads in multiple countries. Meanwhile, back in August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a new Omicron variant called Eris had become the dominant coronavirus strain in the US.
“The Eris variant appears to be more transmissible compared to prior variants, which may mean that it will be easier for more people to get infected from a given exposure. Also, people who have previously been infected or vaccinated may get infected with this new variant,” says Sherrill Brown, a medical director of infection prevention at AltaMed in California.
Though Eris has been responsible for an increasing number of COVID hospitalizations in the US, infectious disease experts have not seen signs yet that it causes more severe illness. In fact, Brown says the Eris variant appears no more dangerous than the ones we’ve faced in the past.
With long COVID complications and immunocompromised individuals in mind as well, it doesn’t hurt to stay prepared if cases surge through the end of 2023. Like the flu and other respiratory viruses, some health experts are now calling COVID endemic—the average person will probably get it several times in their life. But the good news is the US is in a much better position now than three years ago with a range of preventative methods, from medical-grade masks and antiviral treatments to updated vaccine formulas. In mid-September, the Food and Drug Administration approved new booster shots, which are tweaked to defend against XBB.1.5, an Omicron variant.
Following an advisory committee vote in favor of this Omicron-targeting vaccine, the CDC is encouraging everyone who is eligible to get a shot for the upcoming fall and winter season. “We have more tools than ever to prevent the worst outcomes from COVID-19,” said CDC director Mandy Cohen in a news release. “CDC is now recommending updated COVID-19 vaccination for everyone 6 months and older to better protect you and your loved ones.”
Is it time to mask up again?
The US government has lifted all masking mandates, so there is no requirement to wear one in public anymore. That said, private businesses and hospitals may demand face coverings on their property if there is another COVID wave.
For the most part, the decision to mask is personal. Sarah Hochman, the section chief of infectious diseases at NYU Langone Tisch Hospital, says people need to evaluate how far they’re willing to risk getting sick. A person who is immunocompromised or has other lung conditions like asthma, for example, may want to start masking up again because the risk of COVID complications in this group is higher. If you’re planning to see friends and family this season, a properly placed mask would tremendously reduce the risk of infection. “It has been a personal choice for the past year and a half and everyone has their own threshold on where they are concerned enough to mask in situations,” Hochman notes. Masking is also helpful in general for protecting against other respiratory viruses such as the flu and RSV.
A good way to evaluate your individual risk is to check the latest numbers of COVID hospitalization in your local area. Hochman says hospital data is a more reliable source of information given that the CDC and local health departments have not been reporting recently as much on case numbers; people can find these stats on their local state or county health department’s website. Additionally, regional or national data could be inaccurate because more people are doing home tests or not testing at all. In most places, however, hospitalized patients are still being tested for the virus. “It’s really more of a tip of the iceberg type of measure because you’re only measuring COVID in the sickest patients, but it can still indicate what’s going on,” Hochman explains.
When will new COVID boosters be available?
The Biden administration is looking at a mid-September rollout date for the new boosters. The bivalent COVID shot currently protects against the original coronavirus and two Omicron variants, BA.4 and BA.5. With the new update, the vaccine will include protection against the Omicron variant XBB.1.5.
Eris is a close but not exact match to XBB.1.5 as it is a descendent of XBB.1.9.2. Still, infectious disease experts have a strong suspicion the new shots will provide some protection against this new variant. “Most of the circulating variants are still related to the XBB.1.5 strain, so there should be fairly good protection from severe disease with this updated vaccine,” says Brown.
Once the booster becomes publicly available, you can get it in the same places you received your prior vaccines, including doctor’s offices, pharmacies, and local health clinics. Some states and counties may have websites set up to help people find a vaccine administration center close to them. Remember that all COVID vaccines should still be free, regardless of insurance or immigration status.
What happens if you get COVID again?
Masks and boosters cut your risk for re-infection, but they won’t completely prevent it. To prepare, make sure to keep some at-home rapid test kits on hand. Hochman recommends having one to two tests for every person in the household.
If you test positive, notify your doctor immediately. They can prescribe you the antiviral pill Paxlovid, which is most effective within five days of developing symptoms. You’ll also want to take time off work and other obligations to rest and drink enough fluids for a proper recovery.
Isolate from others at home for at least five days to avoid spreading the virus. If you need to go out or see other people, make sure to wear a high-quality mask.
This post has been updated to include more regulatory information about this fall’s COVID boosters. It was originally published on September 5.