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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

FLiRT-ing with a COVID surge?

David Colburn
Posted 6/13/24

REGIONAL- As the number of COVID infections and our ability to measure them has declined, COVID-19 has largely disappeared from the public eye in recent months. But the disease has recently made a …

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FLiRT-ing with a COVID surge?


REGIONAL- As the number of COVID infections and our ability to measure them has declined, COVID-19 has largely disappeared from the public eye in recent months.
But the disease has recently made a minor comeback of sorts, at least in news circles, thanks to the concern health officials have expressed about the most recent variants, collectively known by an acronym comprised from their technical names, the FLiRT variants.
This family of variants are all mutations of the Omicron variant that caused the pandemic’s biggest single spike in early 2022. Collectively, two FLiRT variants, dubbed JN and KP, now account for around 85 percent of the virus circulating in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control’s latest estimates. They’re of concern for two reasons.
First, like their parent variant Omicron, the FLiRT strains are more highly transmissible than any that have come before, thanks to a new mutation on their spike proteins that help them evade immune responses. The second concern relates to immunity, or our collective lack thereof. Boosts to immunity from COVID vaccines and actual infections wane over time – one study showed that at six months post-vaccination, vaccine/booster effectiveness against COVID was only 14 percent. Given that just 14 percent of Americans have opted to receive the most recent vaccine booster, which came out last November, health officials are concerned that waning immunity has sapped the country’s ability to fend off a possible new surge.
But while conditions are favorable for a potential surge going into the fall, detecting that surge may be more difficult than ever on a nationwide basis.
COVID monitoring in the early part of the pandemic was relatively straightforward, because testing was done in labs and the results were reported to state health departments and the CDC. But when home testing kits became widely available, lab-based testing dropped off significantly and became somewhat unreliable as a gauge of COVID activity. The data that replaced it was hospitalizations and deaths from COVID, data that was required to be reported to the CDC. And a second generalized measure of community COVID levels, the amount of COVID residue in measures of processed wastewater, added to the overall picture.
But as of May 1, hospitals were no longer required to submit their data to the CDC, although they may continue to do so voluntarily. But with the anticipated drop in reporting, only states like Minnesota that still collect hospital data will provide that window into COVID’s possible resurgence.
So far, data in Minnesota doesn’t suggest a resurgence is imminent in the state. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, reviewed the data in a May 30 podcast, while noting that the national wastewater data from the CDC indicated a slight rise in COVID viral load.
“Here in Minnesota, throughout the month of April, we averaged about 70 hospitalized cases per week,” Osterholm said. “I think it’s important to keep in mind that even in a place like Minnesota, if we were to see an upward drift, that would still represent a very small increase relative to what we’ve seen in the past. So, I can say that for the summer months coming ahead, we really are still at a very, very good point in this pandemic. Any new increase in cases is coming off of a very, very low point and that is so different than during much of the pandemic.”
Osterholm noted that increased activity has been seen overseas in a number of places such as Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Singapore, which has roughly the same size population as Minnesota.
“We’ll learn much more about the variants over the next several weeks here in this country,” Osterholm said. “At that point we’ll have a better sense of what has happened in Asia and what that portends for what might happen here in the United States. In the meantime, I just want to say enjoy your summer.”
Osterholm said that we’re at least a few weeks away from any information about a new round of booster shots and when they will be available.
“I hope that we see the next booster dose recommendation apply to everyone who wishes to receive an additional dose, and not only those at increased risk of severe disease,” Osterholm said. “We know that most individuals, regardless of their risk for severe disease, will likely choose not to get an additional dose, so we certainly won’t be experiencing a shortage of these vaccines.”