There’s a new strain of COVID making news on the East Coast but what do residents of the Quad Cities need to know about XBB.1.5, more commonly known online by the nickname “Kraken”? Janet Hill, Chief Operating Officer of the Rock Island County Health Department, assures the public that while the virus moves fast, it doesn’t mean it’s a more dangerous variant.

“It is quickly becoming the largest number of infections across the country. It’s really bad in the Northeast right now; it makes up about 70% of the cases there. It does not mean that it seems to be more contagious, but it does move quickly because of some behavior changes,” says Hill. “Fewer people are taking precautions as they did a year ago. We have vaccination rate not as high as we would like. Only 45% of our seniors in Rock Island County have been boosted and they are the ones who are at serious risk.”

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

XBB1.5 is a combination of two other Omicron offshoots. Viruses evolve to try to evade protections, but this new one is close enough to its parent variants that it’s not more contagious. It’s not clear if the virus has made it to the Quad Cities. “I don’t know whether it’s here yet because we have to do genetic sequencing for it. We know that just in a matter of matter of weeks it went from 4% to 40% of infections all across the country,” says Hill. “I think that we should assume that it’s here because that’s how it’s been throughout the pandemic.”

Currently in Rock Island County, the community levels for COVID are considered low but Hill reminds people that the status can change, depending on transmission rates. “We were in medium just a couple of weeks ago during the Christmas holiday season. When we’re in medium, the CDC recommends that if you are at serious risk for a serious disease or death, you should consider wearing a mask in public spaces.” To check the current community levels for your area, click here.

The articles online might sound frightening, but Hill urges the public to stay calm and use common sense about their health. “Think back around the holidays, there was that Delta surge, so Delta went into Omicron. We are not in that situation now, but we do have a highly vaccinated population who also may have some natural immunity because of previous infection. It doesn’t mean that we could put our guard down completely but we’re just in a different space. If you do get sick, you need to call your doctor right away and find out if you are eligible for these treatments. Don’t just assume because you have mild symptoms that it’s just a cold or it’s just your allergies flaring up. The only way to know if you have COVID is to get tested. We have highly effective treatments for flu also, so if you’re not feeling well, contact your medical provider and get tested. If it’s not COVID, it may be flu and both of those are treatable. If you are sick, it’s really important to isolate to keep others safe.”

It can be difficult to know if symptoms are allergies, the flu or COVID, so many people rely on home tests to determine what they have. Hill says those tests may or may not provide the answers people seek. “I’ve seen some statistics that show that the at home test are about 50% (accurate), so I think people know their own bodies and if they’re not feeling well, just take a little bit of time to isolate and not spread it to other people. If you must go to work, wear a mask. If you must go to the grocery store, wear a mask. If your symptoms don’t improve, contact your medical provider because there are treatments.”

“Right now, hospitalizations are not high but New England, they are rising quickly so I think with this new variant, we should do everything we can to get protected. If you completed your primary series or it’s been at least two months since your last booster, you’re eligible for another one. Everyone six months and older is now eligible for this bivalent booster. Moderna vaccines are available on Tuesdays and Pfizer vaccines are available on Fridays. We have Tuesdays for Moderna and Fridays for Pfizer. You don’t need an appointment for anyone who is four or five and older depending on whether it’s Pfizer or Moderna.”

If those days don’t work with your schedule, click here to find other opportunities to get vaccinated or boosted at local healthcare and pharmacy partners. For more information on the Rock Island County Health Department’s clinics, call (309) 793-1955 or click here.