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New COVID-19 variants account for more than a third of current cases. Here's what you need to know

There are two new COVID-19 variants circulating, and scientists believe they’re more transmissible than previous ones. Together, they’re known as FLiRT — and some estimates suggest they account for more than a third of current COVID-19 cases.

With The Show to talk about these new variants, and what they could mean as we’re heading into summer and the summer travel season, is Dr. Nick Staab, assistant medical director with the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.

Full conversation

MARK BRODIE: Dr. Staab, good morning.

DR. NICK STAAB: Good morning, Mark.

BRODIE: So what, what is new about these, these two new variants, they're being called FLiRT, what is different about them than what we have seen previously?

STAAB: So, you know what we know about these COVID viruses, is that as they evolve, they become more transmissible and they're able to evade our natural immunity, whether that immunity is from vaccination or from natural infections. This is just the normal way that viruses evolve. So these new variants are more transmissible and they are able to evade some of our immune mechanisms. 

BRODIE: So does that mean that even if people are, for example, up to date on their, on their boosters and maybe they've had COVID in the recent past, they still could, could get catch this version of it.

STAAB: Yeah, that's correct. So, you know what we're encouraging is the most, the latest recommendation is that those who are elderly over the age of 65, if it's been more than two months since their last COVID vaccine, that they get another booster to boost that immunity. And then the FDA will be meeting tomorrow [Wednesday] to consider our 2024-25 vaccine. And as soon as those are available, the best protection is to get that vaccine.

BRODIE: So for folks who, who are up to date at the moment, it sounds like there's not much else to do in terms of vaccination between now and maybe like later this year.

STAAB: That's true. There's not much to do, but there are things we can do, right? The, the same things we've been talking about for, for years now, if you are sick, stay away from others, if you are at high risk, whether it's because you're immunocompromised or have other underlying health conditions that put you at increased risk, you know, avoiding large crowds as we start to see what is usually a summer surge of COVID cases is a smart idea.

BRODIE: Are you expecting an increase in COVID cases over the course of the summer here in Maricopa County?

STAAB: You know, we've seen it every summer. So there's no reason to think that we're not gonna see it this summer. We're still waiting for COVID to fall into a regular seasonal pattern like we see with influenza, but we're still not there yet. So, I think it is likely, especially with this variant,, that we see an increase in cases.

BRODIE: How well do we really understand what's going on? I mean, there's not seemingly not as much testing happening as there as there has been. People aren't really required to quarantine anymore if they, if they do test and are positive, like, do we have a good sense of what the situation is?

STAAB: You know, we can look at how our health care system is being used and how we're seeing COVID cases in the health care system to get a good sense of that. It's what we do typically with influenza. So we're staying in close touch with our health care partners even reporting from hospitals is not what it used to be during the emergency. So we're using more typical means of surveillance to just keep an eye on those COVID cases. And, and we're not seeing an increase in severe cases in hospital, which is a good sign.

BRODIE: I wanted to ask you about that because as we've talked about over the last few years, yes, the, you know, the variants as time goes along tend to become more transmissible, they often tend to be also less severe in terms of symptoms and risks. Is that what we're seeing here with, with these new 22, new variants?

STAAB:  We think so. So again, it's probably too early with these variants to, to say for sure that that's the case. But that is what we typically see with coronaviruses. You have to remember that we've had other human coronaviruses before. SARS, COVID-2, the virus that causes COVID, we know what's kind of typical in their evolution and, and this is what we expect to see more transmissibility, less severity because of the changes in the virus and because of our immune protections that we've built up as a population having been through this for several years.

BRODIE: So we've seen in some parts of the country that there are, there is an uptick of, of COVID cases, especially with these flirt variances. What are you seeing so far, you know, early, not even officially summer, but, you know, it feels like summer outside, s sort of early summer season here in the valley.

STAAB: So if you look at our COVID numbers again, we don't have complete reporting of all the COVID cases out there, but we have a sample and that sample is showing a, an uptick in cases. So we're starting to see an increase in cases here locally, like is being reported elsewhere. You know, we have the reverse phenomenon here in Maricopa County that the rest of the country has, you know, during our summer, we spend more time indoors, than outdoors. And so, that is probably why kind of in hotter areas in the country, we start to see an increase in cases, as we congregate indoors more together.

BRODIE: Well, and as you referenced earlier, I mean, a lot of people from the Phoenix area travel elsewhere where it's maybe not going to be 110 degrees in the beginning of June. So does that also increase the risk of, you know, transmissibility from, you know, folks maybe elsewhere where perhaps there are, there is also an uptick in, in this, in this variant.

STAAB: Absolutely. So, so travel mixing of, of populations is is how all diseases all communicable diseases increase transmissions. So, you know, whether it's COVID or measles, when we see that these infections are on the rise in certain places, the potential for bringing them back here to Maricopa County in the Phoenix area is, is there any time you travel. So traveling is, is definitely a time to think about your own risk factors. Again, make sure you're up to date on vaccines and, and just practicing some common sense disease transmission behaviors, how about that.

BRODIE: So you mentioned that you've been, you know, sort of tracking this based on how people are using the health care system. How is the health care system being affected by this variant or even, you know, some of the variants you've had in the past. Like, obviously, I would imagine it's not under the kind of strain that it was in like 2020 or 2021. But what has the impact been on the health care system in Maricopa County, you know, from these, these most recent variants.

STAAB: You know, certainly from the height of COVID-19, our health care systems have rebounded. They've been able to keep up with staffing, better than we went that we saw during the pandemic. But we still have a health care system that, that sees seasonal strain, whether it's from influenza and COVID during the winter or you know, other environmental-related impacts during the summer. So certainly we're starting to see an increase in heat-related illness in our emergency department. So, all of these things put different strains on the health care system. But, but we're seeing a that our health care systems have definitely rebounded from where we were during the pandemic. So, you know, I, I think we're in a good spot. We stay in close communication with our health care systems to make sure that they're not seeing strain that, that we're unaware of.

BRODIE: All right, that is Dr. Nick Staab, assistant medical director with the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. Dr. Staab, thanks as always for your time. I appreciate it.

STAAB: Thank you, Mark

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.