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New coronavirus strain causes 'double-whammy' of concern for Chicago epidemiologist

New coronavirus strain causes 'double-whammy' of concern for Chicago epidemiologist
New coronavirus strain causes 'double-whammy' of concern for Chicago epidemiologist 02:26

CHICAGO (CBS) – Just in time for the new year, a new omicron strain is spreading fast in parts of the U.S.

CBS 2's Noel Brennan learned that doctors in Illinois are concerned about this new coronavirus variant.

All eyes are on the northeastern part of the country, where the new strain already accounts for the majority of new cases. The number of cases in the Chicago region have double in the last week.

The name XBB.1.5 may be new, but this coronavirus variant spreads in a familiar way.

"We've seen the prevalence increasing in the U.S. week over week," said University of Illinois at Chicago epidemiologist Dr. Katrine Wallace.

Brennan: "What is this new variant and why should we be paying attention to it?"

Wallace: "XBB.1.5 seems to have an ability to evade our immune defenses, but it also has an additional mutation that makes it more capable to bind to our cells, so it's kind of like a double whammy."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the new variant makes up about 40 % of new cases in the country, and about 75% of cases in the Northeast.

Brennan: "At what point does it get your alarm bells ringing when you're looking at a new variant?"

Wallace: "In epidemiology, we look at the doubling time in the prevalence to see how fast a variant is spreading and this one went from 20% last week to about 40% this week in the U.S."

In Illinois and surrounding states, the new strain accounts for 6% of cases, but Wallace points out that percentage doubled in a week.

"My guess is that we will see the same growth here, and we will probably be seeing an increase incases of COVID-19 as well," she said.

The comforting news, if you ask Wallace, is that the updated vaccines target omicron.

"Some data came out last week in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that his bivalent booster significantly increases the antibodies against specifically XBB and some other variants," Wallace said.

And with a variant with a new name, the advice remains the same.

"Getting your bivalent booster is probably the best thing you can do to protect yourself and protect your community," Wallace said.

Wallace also pointed out there are a lot of viruses circulating right now, so it's hard to tell what you've got by symptoms alone.

The best bet would be to stay home if you're feeling sick because a mild illness for you could be a hospitalization for someone else.

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