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New omicron subvariant fuels COVID surge throughout the Northeast

Tony Spinelli
Connecticut Public
FILE: As Connecticut's COVID-19 positivity rate edges toward 18%, state officials report that 761 people are hospitalized, an increase of 47 people over the last seven days. The most recent data from the CDC show Hartford, Litchfield, Middlesex, New Haven, Tolland and Windham counties as "high risk."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a new COVID-19 omicron subvariant called XBB.1.5 is the dominant variant in the Northeast and accounts for nearly one-third of new COVID cases nationwide.

Three factors are at play in the quick spread of XBB.1.5, said Dr. Ulysses Wu, Hartford HealthCare's chief epidemiologist. The winter season, people gathering indoors for the holidays and a variant that is more transmissible.

“It has the ability to infect cells and infect humans easier because of its ability to adhere to a lot of different genetic things,” Wu said.

Dr. Jennifer Donahue, chief medical officer for ProHealth Physicians, said the variant’s increased transmissibility means people should consider wearing masks in public.

"This is absolutely the time to start to be more careful because this variant really is very transmissible. We've kind of gotten out of the habit, and it's time for us to be a little bit more careful again," she said.

When calculating COVID-19 risk levels nationwide, the CDC tracks hospitalizations and community spread. In recent weeks, data show that Connecticut’s COVID situation has gotten worse.

Hospitalizations have been increasing since November, and the CDC now recommends people in six of the eight Connecticut counties wear masks while indoors. Hartford, Litchfield, Middlesex, New Haven, Tolland and Windham counties were all named by the agency.

Wu said it is crucial to get the bivalent booster that was released this past fall to help keep the number of hospitalizations down. But CDC data show that only about one-quarter of Connecticut’s population has gotten the latest shot.

The vaccine’s “most important job is to keep you out of the hospital. Turn a potentially deadly illness into the common cold," Wu said.

Wu said Connecticut could see a peak in COVID-19 hospitalizations up to two weeks after New Year's Eve celebrations.

Jennifer Ahrens is a producer for Morning Edition. After spending 20+ years producing TV shows for CNN and ESPN, she decided to tackle a new medium because she values Public Broadcasting's mission. She wants to educate and entertain an audience and Connecticut Public lets her do that.