Week CXLVII: Omicron sublineage XBB dominates rapidly, raising concerns

— Graph from the CDC

In Region 2 — New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands — Omicron sublineage XBB.1.5 now makes up a whopping 72.2 percent of new cases, a dramatic increase in recent weeks. BQ sublineages have also gained ground as the once-dominant BA.5 recedes.

ALBANY COUNTY — Cases of COVID-19 in Albany County this week saw a dramatic jump as a new sublineage of Omicron has spread rapidly nationwide, and particularly in our region.

Albany County, as a seven-day average, now has 24.4 cases per 100,000 of population, nearly double last week’s rate and similar to the rate from five months ago before the dropping and leveling off of infections.

The Omicron sublineage XBB.1.5 now makes up 40 percent of new cases nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; that’s more than double last week’s 18 percent.

In Region 2 — New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands — the spread of the new sublineage is even more pronounced.

For the week between Dec. 25 and 31, the once-dominant BA.5 is now in fifth place, causing just 1.6 percent of new cases, while XBB.1.5 makes up a whopping 72.2 percent of new cases.

“Continuous evolution of Omicron has led to a rapid and simultaneous emergence of numerous variants that display growth advantages over BA.5,” says a study published on Dec. 19 in Nature. “Despite their divergent evolutionary courses, mutations on their receptor-binding domain (RBD) converge on several hotspots. The driving force and destination of such sudden convergent evolution and its impact on humoral immunity remain unclear.”

XBB.1.5 appears to be better at binding with other cells than previous sublineages have, and some researchers are concerned that it could cause more breakthrough infections.

XBB was first identified in August in India where it rapidly dominated and has now evolved in a family of sublineages, according to a Dec. 30 CNBC report.

A peer-reviewed study published in the journal Cell found of XBB and BQ that “monoclonal antibodies capable of neutralizing the original Omicron variant were largely inactive against these new subvariants ….”

The researchers concluded that “BQ and XBB subvariants present serious threats to current COVID-19 vaccines, render inactive all authorized antibodies, and may have gained dominance in the population because of their advantage in evading antibodies.”

The bivalent COVID vaccine was developed to combat the now nearly nonexistent BA.4 and the rapidly fading BA.5.

The researchers found that, while the vaccine may not be as effective in preventing infection with the new sublineages, it is still effective at preventing severe illness and hospitalization.

The once-dominant BA.5 now makes up only about 3.7 percent of new COVID cases nationwide, down from 7 percent last week; with BQ.1.1 at about 27 percent, down from 36 percent; and BQ.1 at about 18 percent, down from 27 percent.

In Region 2, behind the 72.2 percent of new cases caused by XBB.1.5, sublineage B.Q.1.1 makes up 12.5 percent, down from 22 percent last week; and BQ.1 accounts for 9.2 percent, down from 20 percent last week.


Travel from China

Starting on Thursday, Jan. 5, travelers from China to the United States will have to test negative for COVID-19, according to an order from the CDC.

“This Order applies regardless of citizenship or vaccination status,” the Dec. 31 directive says.

It follows a surge of cases in China after the country did away with its zero-COVID restrictions following highly unusual citizen protests.

“Starting 12:01am EST (5:01am GMT) on January 5, 2023, all air passengers 2 years of age and older traveling to the United States from China, Hong Kong, or Macau will need to get a COVID-19 viral test no more than 2 days before their flight and show their negative result, or show proof documentation of having recovered from COVID-19 in the past 90 days, to the airline before boarding,” the CDC says.


Pandemic fraud

This week, Governor Kathy Hochul signed a legislative package to crack down on pandemic fraud.

“We are sending a clear message: New York has zero tolerance for fraud, especially in our most critical times of need,” Hochul said in a release announcing the new legislation. “These new laws will protect New Yorkers and incentivize them to report fraud and assist with recovery efforts while cracking down on bad actors and their deceitful attempts to turn a profit during emergencies."

The legislation increases the award amounts given to individuals who report fraud related to a state of emergency. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, New Yorkers reported seeing potentially fraudulent acts perpetrated on the state.

Currently, private citizens can file civil lawsuits on behalf of the government to help recover defrauded money and may be rewarded a percentage of the money recovered. With this new law, whistleblowers may be eligible to receive additional money if the fraud was perpetrated during a state of emergency.

Penalties for fraud that occurs during a declared state of emergency are also being increased. The new law empowers the attorney general to take action for civil penalties against any partnership, corporation, company, trust or association, or individual who commits such fraud.

“During the height of the pandemic, New Yorkers were deceived by fraudsters trying to take advantage of difficult times,” said Attorney General Letitia James in the release. “My office has taken significant action to stop scams, combat price gouging of essential goods, and recover millions of dollars for consumers who were misled. This new law will strengthen our ability to go after those trying to take advantage of New Yorkers.” 

State Senator Zellnor Myrie, who sponsored the bill, said that New Yorkers have already lost over $80 million to pandemic-related fraud.


Workers’ comp

The Workers’ Compensation Board is continuing its webinar series to help workers who believe they contracted COVID-19 on the job, especially those who have missed time from work or are suffering from ongoing or “long-haul” symptoms, the board said in a notice.

The next one-hour session will be held on Wednesday, Jan. 11, from noon to 1 p.m.

The online session will provide information on workers’ rights when it comes to filing a workers’ compensation claim and the cash and/or medical benefits they may be eligible to receive.

While the online session is targeted toward workers who have lost time from work, have ongoing medical problems and/or fall into the category of “long haulers,” the information is relevant to anyone who believes they may have contracted COVID-19 due to an exposure at work. 

Workers have two years from the time they contracted COVID-19 to file a claim.

Registration is not required. Participants may join through this link: http://www.wcb.ny.gov/webinars/#covid-19.


Albany County COVID numbers

This week, Albany County’s 147th of dealing with COVID, for the third week in a row, Albany County remains at a “medium” designation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its community level of COVID-19.

For the prior two weeks it had a “low” designation following four weeks of being labeled “medium” after 13 weeks of being labeled “high.”

Also this week, one new COVID-related death was reported by the governor’s office, on Dec. 28. The county’s dashboard, as of Tuesday, Jan. 3, still shows a death toll of 608: 296 males and 312 females.

Three weeks ago, the counties surrounding Albany were, like Albany County, all designated as having “low” community levels. This week, neighboring Rensselaer, Greene, and Columbia counties, like Albany, are designated “medium” while the other contiguous counties — Saratoga, Schenectady, and Schoharie — are designated “low.”

The weekly metrics the CDC used to determine the current “medium” level for Albany County are:

— Albany County now has a case rate of about 79 per 100,000 of population, down from 84 last week, 81 two weeks ago, and 90 three weeks ago but up from 69 four weeks ago, 51 five weeks ago, though down from 76 six weeks ago and 104 seven weeks ago;

— The county has a COVID hospital admission rate of 16 per 100,000, down from 19 last week but up from 15.8 two weeks ago, 8.2 three weeks ago, 9.1 four weeks ago and about 14.6 per 100,000 for the two weeks prior; and

— The county now has 6.5 percent of its staffed hospital beds filled with COVID patients, the same as last week but up from 5.5 two weeks ago, 5.0 three weeks ago, 5.1 four weeks ago, and 5.2 five weeks ago, 5.7 six weeks ago, and 6.3 seven weeks ago.

Nationwide, about 9 percent of counties are now labeled “high,”  an decrease of 2 percent from last week, while about 40 percent are “medium,” nearly the same as last week but up from 35 percent two weeks ago, 25 percent three weeks and 18 percent the week before. About 51 percent are “low,” an increase of 2 percent from last week but down substantially from 78 percent four weeks ago.

In New York State, 29 counties are labeled “low,”  while 24 are labeled “medium.” Counties on Long Island and in New York City have “high” designations as do Orange and Rockland counties.

As of Jan. 3, according to Albany County’s COVID dashboard, 46 patients were hospitalized with COVID, a dramatic jump from 36 last week, and up from 30 two weeks ago, and 24 the week before.

About 44 percent of the Capital Region residents hospitalized with COVID this week were not admitted because of having the virus, according to a chart from the governor’s office.

Although figures on infection rates are no longer reliable since tracing and tracking systems have been disbanded, the state dashboard shows that cases statewide and in Albany County are continuing to tick up — rather dramatically this week, back to the rate from five months ago — after leveling off in November following two months of climbing.

Albany County, as a seven-day average, now has 24.4 cases per 100,000 of population, nearly double last week’s 12.4, up from 12.0 two weeks ago, 10.9 three weeks ago, and 13.5 four weeks ago. The current rate is up substantially from 8.6 five weeks ago, 8.0 six weeks ago, and 10.6 seven weeks ago, and 15.2 eight weeks ago, which was a fairly steady decrease from 21.8 cases per 100,000 twenty weeks ago.

This compares with 24.4 cases per 100,000 statewide, which is down from 25.8 last week, 28.3 two weeks, 27.8 three weeks ago, and 28.5 four weeks ago although up from 18.4 five weeks ago, 19.0 six weeks ago, 18.8 seven weeks ago, and 20.9 eight weeks ago, which was another fairly steady decrease from and from 30.03 per 100,000 of population 18 weeks ago.

The lowest rates are in Western New York at 11.3 cases per 100,000, and the highest count is still on Long Island at 37.3, which is down from 40.9 last week and 44.7 two weeks ago, which was a dramatic jump from 23.93 four weeks before.

The numbers for vaccination in Albany County have hardly budged for several months. The state’s dashboard now reports on these two categories:

— People with a primary series, for those who have completed the recommended initial series of a given COVID-19 vaccine product — two doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine; and

— People who are up to date, for those who have completed all COVID-19 vaccinations, including the bivalent booster, as appropriate per age and clinical recommendations.

As of Tuesday, 19.4 percent percent of Albany County residents were up to date on vaccines, up from 19.0 last week, 18.5  two weeks ago, and 17.9 three weeks ago, as opposed to the 61.5 percent of eligible residents who had received booster shots, as reported in prior weeks.

At the same time, 76 percent of county residents have completed a primary series, the same as the last several weeks.

This compares with 76.3 percent of New Yorkers statewide completing a vaccination series, and 12.4 percent being up to date with vaccinations, up from 12.2 last week, 11.7 two weeks ago, 11.1 three weeks ago, and 10.6 four weeks ago.

New Yorkers are being encouraged by the state’s health department to get bivalent COVID-19 vaccine boosters from Pfizer-BioNTech for anyone age 5 or older and from Moderna for those 6 or older.

To schedule an appointment for a booster, New Yorkers are to contact their local pharmacy, county health department, or healthcare provider; visit vaccines.gov; text their ZIP code to 438829, or call 1-800-232-0233 to find nearby locations.

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