- COVID cases and hospitalizations are on the rise in the U.S., with new variants EG.5 (Eris) and BA.2.86 (Pirola) causing concern. These variants are descendants of the Omicron strain and have multiple genetic differences, potentially making them more infectious and better at evading immunity. However, recent studies show that antibodies from previous infections and vaccinations neutralize these new variants.
- Symptoms of the new variants are similar to previous strains, affecting the upper respiratory tract with symptoms like runny nose, sore throat, fever, and fatigue. Adults over 65 and those with underlying medical conditions are at higher risk for severe symptoms.
- Despite the increase in cases, experts advise against panic. Hospitalizations remain relatively low compared to past surges, and widespread protection from severe disease exists due to vaccinations and prior infections. Antiviral treatments like Paxlovid are also available to reduce the risk of severe illness.
- Vaccination is the best protection against severe illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID. Updated boosters are available and recommended for everyone aged 5 years and older. Other precautions include avoiding large crowds, maintaining good hand hygiene, and wearing well-fitted masks.
- If you develop COVID symptoms, get tested, stay home, and follow CDC's quarantine and isolation guidelines. Most people with COVID have mild symptoms and can recover at home with rest, hydration, and over-the-counter pain medication. Consult a healthcare provider if unsure when to get a booster or if you need treatment.
If you’ve recently noticed an uptick of COVID in your circle, you’re not alone. Cases and hospitalizations are on the rise in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While this increase is far less dramatic than what the U.S. experienced a year ago, it’s still important to be aware of what’s circulating out there, who’s at risk and what you can do to protect yourself and those around you.
“We’re getting ready to enter respiratory illness season, which of course includes COVID,” says Erica Brajcich, Medical Director for Indigo Urgent Care. “While we are not expecting the number of cases of COVID, Influenza, and RSV to be as high as they were last year, medical experts are keeping a close eye on COVID variants that may increase transmission rates.”
What are the new COVID variants?
There are two new COVID strains of particular interest to health officials. The strain EG.5, nicknamed Eris, became the most prevalent variant in July 2023 and now infects more people in the U.S. than any other single strain. Dubbed by health experts a “grandchild” of the Omicron variant, medical experts think it may be easier to catch and transmit than the previous Omicron strain.
The CDC indicates that EG.5 isn’t the only variant afoot. BA.2.86 (dubbed “Pirola”) is another descendant of Omicron that was first spotted in August. As of September, the strain had infected people in 10 U.S. states.
While those in the know still aren’t sure how BA.2.86 compares with other variants, the strain has multiple genetic differences compared with its predecessors. This highly mutated version initially prompted concern among scientists and public health officials who thought its unusual nature could make it more infectious than previous versions and better at evading immunity from vaccines and past infections. Fortunately, recent lab studies found that antibodies from previous COVID infections and vaccinations do seem to neutralize the new variant.
What are the symptoms of the new variants and how do they differ from previous strains?
To date, symptoms of the EG.5 and BA.2.86 are similar to those caused by other COVID strains and tend to infect the upper respiratory tract. Common symptoms, which may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus, include:
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Fever or chills
Adults over the age of 65 and people with underlying medical conditions are at higher risk for more severe symptoms, including lower respiratory disease, chest pain and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
Should I worry about the new COVID variants?
Experts say there is no reason for panic.
Despite recent increases in cases, according to the CDC, hospitalizations are still relatively low compared with surges in past years. And because of vaccinations and prior infections, there is more widespread protection from severe disease. Antiviral treatments like Paxlovid are also widely available and can reduce the risk of hospitalization and severe illness if taken early.
“I think we can expect variants of the virus that cause COVID to continue to occur,” Erica says. “The good news is that we have the tools to fight them.”
How can I protect myself and my family from the new COVID wave?
COVID vaccination significantly lowers your risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death if you get infected. And just like the flu vaccine, an updated COVID shot can help boost your waning immunity as we head into respiratory virus season.
Amid a late-summer increase in COVID cases, in September the United State Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved updated boosters. The shots are available in pharmacies, hospitals and clinics across the U.S.
According to the CDC, the updated versions of the existing Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines should offer a good degree of protection against currently circulating COVID variants, including EG.5 and BA.2.86.
“Just as the flu vaccine is updated each year to target circulating bugs, the new COVID booster is designed to help bolster waning immunity at a time of year when cases are likely to be at their highest,” Erica says.
As of September 2023, the CDC recommends:
- Everyone ages 5 years and older should get 1 updated booster at least 2 months after getting the last dose of any COVID-19 vaccine.
- Children ages 6 months to 4 years should get 1 or 2 doses of the updated booster depending on the number of prior doses they’ve received. For children who are not vaccinated, the CDC recommends 2 doses of the updated Moderna vaccine or 3 doses of the updated Pfizer vaccine.
Vaccination isn’t the only tool that can protect you from COVID. The CDC notes that the following precautions are also highly effective, especially for individuals considered at high risk for severe disease:
- Avoid big crowds.
- Avoid contact with people who have a suspected or confirmed case of COVID.
- Wear a well-fitting N95, KN95 or KF94 mask if you can’t avoid high-risk settings.
- When indoors, make sure rooms are well-ventilated.
- Maintain good hand hygiene and ensure you wash your hands the right way.
What is the best time to get a booster?
The timing of your COVID booster depends on certain factors.
If you are at high risk for severe illness, most health experts agree that you should get the new vaccine as soon as possible, as long as it’s been at least two months since your last booster. According to the CDC, Vulnerable populations include:
- People over the age of 65.
- Women who are pregnant.
- Individuals who have a weakened immune system or chronic underlying medical conditions, such as heart and lung disease, obesity, advanced diabetes or kidney disease.
For most people, however, there may be some benefit to waiting a bit to get the new shot. For example, if you have travel or holiday plans that may involve a lot of exposure, getting the vaccine a couple of weeks before would likely provide the best coverage. COVID infections also historically peak around December to February. Waiting may help ensure maximum protection this winter.
For people who are sick with COVID now or have recently had the virus, the CDC recommends you wait three months from your initial illness to get a booster. The vaccine probably won’t offer additional benefits if you get it too soon since antibodies are already elevated because of the infection.
While the timeline varies person to person, health experts believe it takes around two weeks after receiving a booster shot to be fully protected.
If you’re unsure of when to get your COVID booster, talk with a health care provider.
What should I do if I have COVID symptoms?
If you develop symptoms and think you have COVID-19, the CDC recommends you take these steps to take care of yourself and prevent the virus from spreading to others:
- Get tested.
- Stay home if you have, or suspect you have, COVID. If you test positive, follow the CDC’s quarantine and isolation guidelines.
- Notify anyone you have been in close contact with.
- Talk with a licensed health care provider if you need to receive treatment. The antiviral therapy Paxlovid is approved by the FDA to treat COVID in adults at risk of developing severe disease because of age, underlying medical conditions or other risk factors.
- If you have severe COVID symptoms, including difficulty breathing, call 911 or visit your nearest emergency room.
Most people with COVID have only mild symptoms and can recover at home. The best way to manage and improve your symptoms are to:
- Get plenty of rest
- Drink lots of fluids, especially water.
- Take over-the-county pain medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to reduce fever and relieve discomfort.
The CDC offers additional guidance on what to do if you’re sick or caring for someone with COVID.
Frequently asked questions
What are the new COVID variants and why are they of interest?The new COVID variants of interest are EG.5, also known as Eris, and BA.2.86, dubbed Pirola. Eris became the most prevalent variant in July 2023 and is believed to be easier to catch and transmit than the previous Omicron strain. Pirola, first spotted in August, has multiple genetic differences compared to its predecessors, leading to initial concerns about its potential infectiousness and ability to evade immunity. However, recent studies found that antibodies from previous COVID infections and vaccinations seem to neutralize this variant.
What are the symptoms of these new variants?The symptoms of the EG.5 and BA.2.86 variants are similar to those caused by other COVID strains. They tend to infect the upper respiratory tract and common symptoms include runny nose, sore throat, sneezing, fever or chills, headache, and fatigue. Additional symptoms may include diarrhea, nausea or vomiting. Adults over the age of 65 and people with underlying medical conditions are at higher risk for more severe symptoms.
Should I be worried about these new COVID variants?According to experts, there is no need for panic. Despite recent increases in cases, hospitalizations remain relatively low compared to past surges. Widespread protection from severe disease is provided by vaccinations and prior infections, and antiviral treatments like Paxlovid are also available to reduce the risk of hospitalization and severe illness if taken early.
How can I protect myself and my family from these new variants?COVID vaccination significantly lowers your risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and death. Updated boosters are available that offer protection against currently circulating variants. Besides vaccination, the CDC recommends avoiding big crowds, contact with people who have COVID, wearing a well-fitting mask in high-risk settings, ensuring good ventilation indoors, and maintaining good hand hygiene.
When is the best time to get a COVID booster?The timing of your COVID booster depends on certain factors. High-risk individuals should get the new vaccine as soon as possible, as long as it’s been at least two months since the last booster. For most people, there may be some benefit to waiting a bit to get the new shot, especially if you have travel or holiday plans that may involve a lot of exposure. If you are sick with COVID now or have recently had the virus, the CDC recommends waiting three months from your initial illness to get a booster.
What should I do if I have COVID symptoms?If you develop symptoms and think you have COVID-19, get tested and stay home. If you test positive, follow the CDC’s quarantine and isolation guidelines. Notify anyone you have been in close contact with and talk with a licensed health care provider if you need to receive treatment. If you have severe symptoms, including difficulty breathing, call 911 or visit your nearest emergency room.
What can I do to manage and improve my symptoms if I get COVID?Most people with COVID have only mild symptoms and can recover at home. The best way to manage and improve your symptoms are to get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids, especially water, and
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- What to Know About EG.5 (Eris)—the Latest Coronavirus Strain (August 18, 2023, Yale Medicine
- Monitoring Variant Proportions (Updated bi-weekly), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Update on SARS-CoV-2 Variant BA.2.86 Being Tracked by CDC (September 15, 2023), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Updated COVID-19 Vaccine Recommendations are Now Available (September 12, 2023), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- FDA Takes Action on Updated mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines to Better Protect Against Currently Circulating Variants (September 11, 2023), U.S. Food and Drug Administration
- What to Do If You Were Exposed to COVID-19 (August 2022), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- If You Are Sick or Caring for Someone (November 22, 2022), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention