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What you need to know about the XBB.1.5 COVID variant

XBB made up more than 27% of COVID cases nationwide in the first week of January.

DES MOINES, Iowa — After three years of dealing with COVID-19, XBB.1.5 is one of the most transmissible forms of the virus yet. Fortunately, the things that have helped people stay safe so far are still a big help.

In early December, the XBB variant made up just over 2% of COVID cases nationwide; however, by the first week of the new year, that number skyrocketed to more than 27%. The variant first spread widely in the Northeast U.S., and while Iowa hospitals have started to see cases, officials say that the number of patients hasn't been unbearable.

"I don't think it necessarily is causing any more severe disease than the more recent Omicron variants," said Dr. Ravi Vemuri, Medical Director of Infectious Disease with MercyOne.

XBB has the usual COVID symptoms like coughing, fatigue, a loss of taste and smell. And people who have managed to avoid the virus for a while might be more likely to experience those.

"Those that haven't had recent Omicron infection during the Omicron wave, or people that have been vaccinated but haven't gotten recent boosters, are probably at higher risk for getting symptomatic infection," Vemuri said.

Doctors say those newer bivalent boosters can really help protect from a severe case of XBB. But many Iowans don't even have them: according to the Iowa Department of Public Health, less than one in six Iowans have received a bivalent dose.

"The bottom line, the best way to protect yourself against this is to get the most up-to-date booster," Vemuri said.

Vaccines aside, after years of dealing with COVID, the same fundamental safety tips still apply to XBB. Vemuri recommends masking up in crowded spaces indoors, and try to isolate yourself whenever you're feeling sick.

"Doing those two simple things will go a long ways in preventing acquisition of this infection," he said.

In a statement to Local 5, the Iowa Department of Public Health says that receiving the COVID vaccine and staying up-to-date with your booster shots remains the best form of protection against serious illness and death among people infected with the virus.

To find a COVID-19 vaccine near you, click here.

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