What you need to know about the new COVID strain now dominant in Georgia

After fading into the background this summer, COVID-19 is on the rise again. And yet another new strain now makes up the largest proportion of cases in Georgia and across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to a CDC estimate for a two-week period ending Saturday, the EG.5 variant, which is a descendant of omicron, makes up about 17% of cases around the U.S., surpassing other strains. In the eight-state Southeastern region that includes Georgia, the variant represents an estimated 16% of cases, according to the CDC.

The EG.5 variant — nicknamed “Eris” by public health watchers — is being closely watched by health experts, but there’s no indication that this emerging strain is responsible for the uptick or is more virulent than other strains in the omicron family tree.

A file photo of coronavirus models seen with a colorized image of a scanning electron micrograph of a cell (red) infected with the omicron strain of the virus (blue).  (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

“I don’t know that it’s time to worry about this just yet,” said Dr. Andrea Garcia, vice president for science, medicine and public health at the American Medical Association in an AMA update video series. “We know very little about this new variant. There’s currently no evidence to suggest that it causes more severe illness.”

The FDA recently voted to update the fall COVID vaccine formulation to target the XBB variants, also a branch of the omicron lineage. The FDA is expected to authorize the updated COVID vaccine by end of the month, and shots are expected to be made available in September or early October.

Dr. Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research, said the omicron variants are similar enough that an updated booster is expected to protect people infected with EG.5 against severe disease. But he said the rise of this new subvariant is a signal. “There’s more to come” with the coronavirus, he warned, which presents ongoing challenges.

“The ‘pandemic is over’ culture is the last thing we need to confront the pressure we’ve put on the virus to find new ways to get us — to find repeat and new hosts — and evade our prior immunity,” Topol wrote in a Substack post Sunday.

The number of COVID hospitalizations is now at the highest level since April in Georgia, according to the most recent data from the CDC.

While the number hospitalized remains low — far lower than were seen in the past three summers — public health officials and doctors are closely watching the recent uptick.

The number of new COVID hospitalizations in Georgia jumped 33% during the week ending July 29, the most recent data available from the CDC. The total number of new COVID hospitalizations in Georgia climbed to 309 for the week ending July 29, up from 233 during the previous week. Last year, there were 1,668 new hospitalizations in the last week of July.

Public Health officials and doctors are expressing confidence they can manage the virus heading into the fall.

With the surge in COVID numbers, some travelers are masking up at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta on Friday, August 4, 2023. (Katelyn Myrick/katelyn.myrick@ajc.com)

Credit: Katelyn Myrick

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Credit: Katelyn Myrick

The virus today is not the same as it was. Now, with vaccines, natural immunity and more treatments, which include the widespread use of the antiviral drug Paxlovid, doctors say we are at the point where nearly every death is preventable. At least 96% of adults in the U.S. have either been infected by COVID, providing natural immunity, or have been vaccinated. Many fall into both categories.

Even people who are considered high-risk due to age or pre-existing conditions are unlikely to be hospitalized or die from the virus if they are current on their vaccines and seek treatment for a COVID infection, experts say.

Since May 2023, weekly COVID deaths have been the lowest they have been since the start of the pandemic. According to provisional data from the CDC, there were 11 deaths in Georgia for the week ending July 22 in which COVID was an underlying or contributing cause of death.

Database reporter Stephanie Lamm contributed to this article