(COLORADO) — The latest variant of the omicron COVID-19 virus is on the rise in Colorado and competing with other viruses heading into 2023.

Kids are back to school and people are fresh off of a stressful travel season. This is the perfect mix for a rise in various viral infections. Chief among them may just be the newest addition to the COVID-19 family, the XBB.1.5 variant.

(Photo: Getty Images)

According to Dr. Michelle Barron, Senior Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control for UCHealth, “It is similar to omicron but it’s sort of several iterations later, so if you think of it as like the great-grandchild of omicron, it gives you some idea as to the infectivity. Omicron was probably more infectious than any of the other variants that we’ve seen before.”

Dr. Barron emphasized that the XBB.1.5 variant was easier to catch than previous variations. The mutations in the virus could have implications where people’s immune systems are concerned.

“This particular one has a lot of mutations in the areas where your immune system would be able to recognize the virus and we haven’t seen this yet. I think there’s some worries that the level of protection that we have for covid, either from vaccination or from previous infection may not be as robust for this particular strain than it was for the strains we were seeing in October, November,” Dr. Barron said.

Dr. Barron wasn’t sure how severe or mild this variant might be for most people but said that based on the lineage, it should be milder, especially in comparison with the much more severe Delta strain. At-risk populations should still be wary though.

Dr. Barron said, “Most people are having cold-like symptoms that generally resolve within a couple of days without ending up in the hospital or emergency departments.”

The loss of taste and smell has not been reported as much with this variant according to Dr. Barron. Typical symptoms with the XBB.1.5 variant are headache, sore throat, and runny nose, all very similar to a typical head cold.

With RSV on a downward trend and the hopes of the flu heading for a downward trend, Dr. Barron made it clear that there was still too little information on the new variant to be sure that hospitals wouldn’t see a surge of some sort.

“There are all sorts of other viruses circulating. There’s quite a bit of non-covid coronaviruses, the common cause of the common cold, is pretty high in terms of its circulation. Rhinovirus is another one that causes runny nose and cough and cold-like symptoms, it’s also pretty high right now. There’s one other called the human metapneumovirus that seems to be circulating,” Dr. Barron said.

The human metapneumovirus is more like RSV in that a person has a higher chance of developing bronchitis or feel sicker than a normal head cold. The CDC has a tracking website for many of these viruses that people can check as well.

Dr. Barron wanted to remind people that being vaccinated is still more protection than not being vaccinated and could mitigate more serious symptoms. “It’s this layer of protection that is not guaranteeing the outcome but will likely keep the outcome from being something severe,” she said.

The recommendations for minimizing the risk of getting the new variant or any of the ‘crud’ that will likely begin to spread with the return to school are similar to when the pandemic first began: wash your hands, mask up in tight places (airplanes), clean up those germs.

Dr. Barron said, “Having it (a mask) with you, when you hear somebody hacking, at least gives you that option to cover your mouth and nose and be less likely to have that, whatever their hacking, end up on you.”

There is no harm in using supplements to boost one’s immune system according to Dr. Barron but eating plenty of fruits and veggies and staying hydrated are the best approach to getting all the antioxidants that help fight off infections.

Dr. Barron shared some advice on ways parents, educators, and kids can do their part in lowering the spread and risk of the crud and the XBB.1.5 variant:

  • If your child is sick, keep them at home
  • Be cognizant of what is going around, various viruses and symptoms
  • Using home testing
  • If your child is feeling well but is showing some symptoms like a runny nose, use good hygiene like hand washing and sanitization, also consider masking

The XBB.1.5 is not the dominant strain in the region Colorado is a part of and could likely peak anywhere from late January to mid-February.