New COVID strain puts SC infections on the rise again. What’s happening in our state?

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A new COVID strain has spurred an uptick in hospital admissions and possibly includes a new symptom not seen in previous strains, doctors say.

XBB.1.5 — a subvariant of the COVID-19 Omicron variant — has landed a few South Carolinians in the hospital with some complaining of severe headaches, according to Dr. Helmut Albrecht, medical director of the Center of Infectious Diseases Research and Policy for Prisma Health and the University of South Carolina.

The uptick in hospitalizations comes ahead of a new COVID vaccine booster tailored to combat XBB.1.5, which Albrecht said he expects to be available next month.

“We’re clearly seeing more cases,” Albrecht said. “The vast majority has mild disease as usual, but we now live in a time where 90% of the population has some sort of immunity, either by having had (COVID), having had some vaccines or both. But a handful of patients now, is a handful more than we had a couple of months ago.”

Albrecht said while symptoms related to XBB.1.5 are similar to previous strains, headaches are likely a specific symptom of the subvariant.

“At least two of my patients said that’s the worst headache they’ve ever had,” Albrecht said. “But other than that, it can certainly cause severe disease, including pneumonia, especially non-immune patients.”

As of Tuesday, Prisma Health reported a total of 50 COVID patients across all of its facilities, 17 of whom were non-infectious.

Albrecht noted that there are likely more cases than medical professionals and hospitals are aware because the majority of COVID testing now occurs in the home and results are never reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Beyond “certain labs that are in certain locations” that report positive cases to the CDC, Albrecht said measuring the virus in wastewater is the next best source of data.

Wastewater surveillance data maintained by the CDC shows whether COVID levels at a treatment site are currently higher or lower than past historical levels at the same site. From Aug. 1 to Aug. 15, levels measured in Charleston County were 80% to 100% higher than ever before. Beaufort County saw a 40% to 59% increase, while Richland County only saw a 0% to 19% increase.

Albrecht said measures of prevention for XBB.1.5 are the same as with other strains.

“You’ve got to be good about assessing your own risk and the people that you live with,” Albrecht said. “It’s not a sign of weakness to wear a mask. Most of us don’t. But I can afford it. I had (COVID) once and I have four vaccines now. I know I will not die of this. If you know that, fine. If you don’t, better protect yourself.”

In addition to XBB.1.5, the World Health Organization and the CDC are tracking an even newer strain dubbed BA.2.86. The variant has 36 mutations distinct from XBB.1.5.

BA.2.86 “has been detected in the United States, Denmark and Israel,” the CDC said in a post on the social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter) last week. “CDC is gathering more information and will share more about this lineage as we learn it.”

With COVID cases on the rise, Albrecht advised that South Carolinians should contemplate getting the booster set to come out next month.

“An uptick is never great,” Albrecht said. “And as a 23-year-old in one of our hospitals recently saw, you can still die of this. It’s not the norm, but it can still happen.”