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‘Kraken’ COVID subvariant leads to cases across the U.S.

By The Health News Team | January 13, 2023
Woman sick on the couch

What some are calling the “Kraken” subvariant — named after the legendary gigantic sea monster — the newest COVID variant is making its way across the United States. The Kraken variant — or XBB.1.5 — is a subvariant of the omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. It is estimated to have caused nearly 30% of all new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. in the first week of 2023 and up to 80% of cases in the Northeast alone.

According to the World Health Organization, XBB.1.5 arose when earlier omicron variants mixed their genes — which can happen when multiple variants infect the same person — and developed mutations that helped the newest subvariant evade the protection of current COVID vaccines and prior infection. This also increased its ability to attach tightly to cells, which supports infection. It is now being called the most transmissible omicron variant yet.

“The more people that get the virus, the more opportunity it has to mutate and become a new variant,” says Dr. Nicole Tremain, a board-certified internal medicine doctor with SharpCare Medical Group. “With each major surge, we are seeing new variants come out.”

How to protect yourself and your loved ones

Currently, it is unknown if this new subvariant will lead to a surge of cases like the one seen in winter 2021, or cause more severe illness in those it infects. Experts are keeping a close watch on what the Kraken variant is doing in other countries and whether it will — or already has — mutated into yet another subvariant.

Until more is known, public health officials are urging all people who have not yet been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and received the bivalent COVID vaccine booster to update their COVID vaccinations. Additionally, COVID infections prior to July 2022 do not likely provide protection against new XBB.1.5 infection, increasing the need for vaccination.

“Getting the most updated COVID vaccine to maintain population immunity continues to be the best way to protect ourselves from new variants and subsequent complications, such as hospitalization or death,” says Dr. Tremain. “The boosters clearly still show protection from the newer variants and significant reduction of major illness.”

Dr. Tremain also recommends the following preventive measures to reduce your risk and the risk of those around you:

  • Test before large gatherings or before seeing someone at high risk for severe illness.

  • Wear a high-quality mask in crowded indoor spaces.

  • Work to improve ventilation and filtration in indoor spaces.

  • If you have COVID symptoms, test right away and avoid contact with people at high risk of severe illness.

  • If you get COVID, get evaluated as soon as possible for antiviral treatments and isolate at home.

“This variant appears to be very contagious and can affect people that have already had a different variant of COVID,” Dr. Tremain says. “We expect to see the number of cases rise in the near future, so strongly recommend continuing to follow all preventive measures to protect yourself and others.”

Learn more about COVID-19; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

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