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Health expert advises masks again as new COVID variant raises concern over its resistance

It originated in the U.S. Northeast and now accounts for about 75% of that region’s active COVID cases.

TAMPA, Fla. — A new year brings concern about a new COVID variant.

Although most of us are probably sick and tired of hearing about coronavirus, public health workers say this latest mutation is something we all need to be paying attention to.

“It’s a spinoff of some of the older omicron variants,” said Dr. Jill Roberts with USF Public Health.

The latest omicron mutation is called XBB.1.5. It’s dangerous, say public health workers, because it appears to be getting past our defenses.

“At least in a laboratory dish, it was able to escape antibody responses from previous infections and from the vaccine itself,” Roberts said. “It doesn’t mean those two things are going to be useless. It may be that that’s still protective against hospitalization and death, which seems to be the case.”

The variant has been spreading like wildfire, with a combination of holiday travel and get-togethers likely fueling it.

It originated in the U.S. Northeast and now accounts for about 75% of that region’s active COVID cases. That number is closer to 40% nationwide but is expected to climb quickly.

“This guy is homespun,” Roberts said. “It’s come out of New York and Connecticut where the first place is that it was actually detected. “

The Twitter-sphere has been blasting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for failing to update the numbers as the variant spread over the holidays, with rumors citing data allegedly leaked to a Harvard epidemiologist. Some even go so far as to accuse the government of intentionally withholding the info to keep the economy buzzing during a busy shopping and travel season.

“I wouldn’t point to any conspiracy theories without any data,” Roberts said. “You know, we don’t know. If it comes to light if that’s the case, that’s pretty egregious. So, I hope not.”

What health workers do know is that XBB.1.5 is likely to infect a lot of people quickly.

That could crowd hospitals, but so far severe illness has been limited. The smartest thing folks could do, say health workers, is to break out those masks again. Especially indoors and around large groups.

“Temporally get the mask back on,” said Roberts. “Take care of yourself, be safe. And then, again, this too shall pass.”

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