Health and Wellness

‘Kraken’ variant emerges

Respiratory virus prevention steps such as masking and avoiding gatherings helped limit RSV, COVID-19,  and influenza transmission over the holidays, but health officials say Oregon isn’t out of the woods yet. 

The latest COVID-19 variant, unofficially nicknamed the “kraken,” has the potential to be widespread in the state, compounding challenges at already-packed hospitals. 

“While overall respiratory virus activity in our communities remains high and our hospital systems are still under extraordinary pressure, with some operating near, at or even above 100% capacity, we are seeing some improvements in respiratory virus hospitalizations,” said Dean Sidelinger, M.D., M.S.Ed., of Oregon Health Authority (OHA). “Unfortunately, our hospitals are not yet able to resume normal workflows.”

Nearly one-third of nationwide cases were linked to the XBB.1.5 or “kraken” subvariant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projected last week. It has taken a particular stronghold in the northeast, where it makes up about 70% of new cases.

The World Health Organization has called the XBB.1.5 subvariant the most transmissible so far, though officials at LCPH say that’s par for the course. 

“That’s to be expected, because that’s the way viruses work,” said Jason Davis, LCPH public information officer. “The variant is a genetic mutation, allowing it to replicate quicker. So when there’s a new variant, the chances are, it spreads better, faster or causes more disease.” 

The subvariant first appeared in Oregon in mid-December. It is not yet widespread in Oregon, but officials say it might be soon.

“We do expect rapid XBB.1.5 growth in the coming weeks and are monitoring sequencing data closely,” said Erica Heartquist, public health division communications officer.

While it does appear to spread quickly, so far health experts say there is no evidence the strain is leading to a higher risk of severe disease compared to other strains of coronavirus.

Although the boosters were tailored to different omicron subvariants, bivalent boosters will provide protection against XBB.1.5, officials shared.

“Bivalent boosters were specifically formulated to provide expanded protection against the omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5,” Heartquist said. “XBB.1.5 is derived from the omicron subvariant BA.2.75. The bivalent booster has been shown to generate immunity to other omicron subvariants, including BA.2.75.”

And vaccination continues to offer protection against COVID-19, Heartquist added.

According to most recent data from OHA, 86.5% of all Oregonians over the age of 18 are vaccinated with at least one dose, 77.7% have completed their primary series, and 21% have received a booster.

Even though its nickname entails a fearsome presence, LCPH does not have any immediate concerns.

“Our strategy here is to talk to our community about accepting the reality of Covid within our day-to-day lives, and then expand on that into the bigger conversation around infectious illness and disease,” Davis said. “You’re going to hear about it because it’s here, but can lessen the impact. We don’t necessarily need to be on high alert all the time for Covid. But we do need to accept it and plan for it.”  

Sidelinger thanked people in Oregon for taking the advice of health experts who implored them to wear masks, keep their distance from others, avoid indoor gatherings, and get flu and Covid shots to reduce transmission during the holidays during a press briefing on XBB.1.5 last week.

“I know many of you made the tough decision to postpone or limit that family get-together or forgo that holiday concert or play,” he said. “Please know our public health and health care partners appreciate your sacrifice.”

The best ways for people to protect themselves from all three circulating viruses continue to be getting a flu shot and COVID-19 booster – the booster is protective against XBB.1.5 – as well as “tried-and-true measures” that include wearing masks, limiting indoor gatherings, covering coughs and sneezes, washing hands and staying home when sick.

“Every one of us has a role to play in slowing the spread of these viruses as we go through winter, and that will help our health care system ensure that hospital beds are available for those who need them most,” Sidelinger said.