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Think COVID went away? Utah health officials monitoring new variants

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Standard-Examiner | May 2, 2024

Patrick Sison, Associated Press

COVID-19 antigen home tests indicating a positive result are photographed in New York, April 5, 2023.

A couple of new COVID-19 variants are making the rounds across Utah and the rest of the nation.

Based on a study that has yet to be peer reviewed, the new set of variants, nicknamed FliRT, are unique in the fact that they may not be as infectious but are better at getting around our immune systems, said Kelly Oakeson, chief scientist for next-generation sequencing and bioinformatics at the Utah Department of Health and Human Services.

“We have definitely seen a few cases already in Utah,” Oakeson said. “Will there be a surge? We don’t really know yet. It’s going to be a matter of time. Basically, the ability to get inside our cells is lower than the JN.1 variant. However, with the alterations in spike protein, our antibodies don’t see them as well, so they can still get into our cells and infect us, but this is still all coming from a preprint study that still needs peer review.”

The variants are from the omicron lineage and derivatives of the JN.1 variant, which was the dominant strain at the beginning of the year. The letters in FLiRT come from their spike mutations, F, L, R and T. One of the more concerning variants is KP.2, which has accounted for approximately 25% of new sequence cases during the past two weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition, only 22% of American adults have received the latest COVID vaccine, but a Harvard University study released information last week showing the newest booster may not hold up as well against the newest variants.

“Like I said, time will tell what’s going to happen, but we do know the variants will still make you sick and you’ll still have all of those symptoms we all know and don’t love,” Oakeson said. “I would love to see people get tested if they get sick, not only so they know what kind of treatment they need, but so we can see how much of these variants are circulating. This is really important if you’re in a high-risk category. If you’ve got COVID, you can get Paxlovid. If you’ve got influenza, you can get the right treatment for that. I would personally want to know what’s making me sick.”

Oakeson said while more data is being collected, the best advice he has right now is to stay home if you get sick.

“Just stay home until you’re feeling better so you don’t go out and infect your family, friends, neighbors and even strangers,” he said.


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