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The newest COVID variant XBB.1.5 detected in Minnesota

It's a mutation of two previous omicron subvariants and is believed to be the most transmissible coronavirus variant since the beginning of the pandemic.

The newest COVID variant driving the worry narrative around the globe is called XBB.1.5 and it has been confirmed in Minnesota, albeit at a limited level. 

Minnesota Department of Health officials confirmed to Bring Me The News on Friday that XBB.1.5 has been detected "but in a very limited number of clinical samples to this point." Also known as the "Kraken" variant, XBB.1.5 is believed to be the most transmissible variant to date. 

"What we are learning about this new variant, XBB.1.5, is that it spreads much more easily compared to the previous variants, and almost twice more likely to spread compared to the previous variants," says Dr. Raj Palraj, an infectious diseases specialist with Mayo Clinic Health System.

Palraj said XBB.1.5 can easily attach to a person's nose and throat cells, making it more efficient at infecting and spreading. There is no indication to suggest that it causes more severe symptoms, though its ability to infect people at a higher rate can lead to more hospitalizations, as has been seen in the northeastern U.S. where XBB.1.5 accounts for 75% of all clinically-confirmed cases.

Clinical samples were once believed to be a strong data point to determine how much COVID is circulating in a given location, but with the majority people using home tests it is no longer a trustworthy indicator.

Dr. Caitlyn Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, wrote in her "Force of Infection" blog Jan. 9 that hospitalizations and wastewater are the best data to "judge the latest trends."

Wastewater trends in the latest update from the Metropolitan Council in the Twin Cities metro shows that the amount of coronavirus flowing into the Metro Plant in St. Paul during the week ending Jan. 2 dropped 22% from the previous week, with no mention of XBB.1.5 among the subvariants found in the sewage. 

According to the CDC, XBB.1.5 could overtake BQ.1 variants as the dominant omicron strain in the United States. It accounted for 11.5% of positive tests in the U.S. on Dec. 24, jumped to 18.3% on Dec. 31, and is up to 27.6% through Jan. 7.

The CDC tracks variant prevalence based on geographic regions. Minnesota is in Region 5 with Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. Through Jan. 7, XBB.1.5 accounted for 7.5% of clinically-confirmed COVID cases while BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 were still dominant with a combined 71.3% of all samples. 

Health continues to stress the importance of being vaccinated and staying up to date with booster doses. While vaccinated individuals getting COVID were previously referred to as "breakthrough cases," the new variants are far better at evading vaccine protections than earlier versions. As such, experts now emphasizing that vaccines are most effective at lowering the risk of more severe symptoms and death.

"What we know from the previous variant cycles is that the COVID-19 booster shot helps reduce the risk of severe pneumonia, reduces the risk of getting hospitalized and reduces the risk of death," Palraj said. "We may not be able to prevent infection, but the odds of getting a severe disease is greatly reduced by the vaccination."

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