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Here it comes again, but this time more deadly

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Why the XBB.1.5 COVID variant is spreading across the US so quickly
Why are we still seeing new COVID-19 variants like XBB.1.5? Here’s what we know.

COVID-19 is not the flu. 

Nor does the virus that causes COVID cause flu or other diseases. 

There are a lot of different viruses. And they cause a lot of different diseases. There are viruses that cause stomach flu, HPV warts, herpes simplex cold sores, and the common cold. Each is a different virus.

The fact is that different viruses cause different diseases. More examples are chickenpox/shingles, AIDS, mumps, measles, rubella, roseola, smallpox and the list goes on. Some are life-threatening. Some are not. Some come and go. And some last a lifetime. All can be contagious. Some are dangerous. None are pleasant. 

One of these diseases is COVID-19. It is a respiratory disease caused by the virus called “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2” or abbreviated as SARS-CoV-2. COVID-19 is a mutated form of SARS-CoV-2 discovered in 2019. Thus the name COVID-19. SARS-CoV-2 spreads from person to person in a number of ways including through respiratory droplets and small particles produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks or even breathes. 

What is spread is the virus itself. This is an infectious microbe made of nucleic acid surrounded by a protein coat. A virus cannot on its own replicate itself. To do so, a virus must infect other cells and use components of the host cell to make copies of itself. In essence a virus reproduces by taking control of a host cell and using its machinery to make more viruses. The virus then reproduces at a very fast rate. While reproducing, the virus can change into what is called a variant. 

Viruses live within all of us. Some are good and beneficial to our lives. They can assist in the carrying of vaccines and in other ways. However, SARS-related viruses and their variants are not among the good viruses. 

Today all of us are at risk for infection from a new SARS variant called XBB.1. If you have not heard of it, you will hear soon. This variant is wildly contagious, even to those who have been careful, are up to date on vaccines, or have suffered through COVID before. 

This newest COVID-19 variant or mutation is so contagious that even people who have already been infected are likely to become infected again. It is projected that 80% of those Americans who have had COVID are likely to catch it again. 

XBB.1 is five times more contagious than the earlier omicron variant, which was five times more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus. At the end of December, XBB.1.5 accounted for 40% of American COVID cases. This was a huge increase from less than 1% a month earlier. 

The reason XBB.1 is spreading so quickly is that people are increasingly reticent to wearing masks. As uncomfortable as they are, face masks combined with vaccinations, boosters, frequent hand-washing and social distancing, work to slow the spread of the most contagious viruses including SARS-CoV-2 and its mutations. 

So what is the bottom line of all this gobbledygook? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that we wear well-fitted masks to protect ourselves and others, even when vaccinated. For those in the know, N95 and KN95 are more effective than surgical masks, which are a whole lot better than no masks. 

There are a number of types of masks available, each with its own level of protection for the wearer and for those nearby. 

Medical or surgical masks are loose fitting and disposable. They protect the wearer from contact with droplets and sprays in the air that may contain viruses. Wearing a medical mask does not increase carbon dioxide in the air you breathe.

KN95 masks provide more protection than medical masks. KN95 masks filter out large and small particles when the wearer inhales. 

N95 masks provide an even higher level of protection. Nonsurgical N95 masks are available to the general public, even though the CDC recommends reserving N95 masks for health care professionals. 

It is important to note that when a mask has valves to make it easier to breathe through the mask, the valves do not filter the air, which defeats the purpose of wearing the mask. 

Cloth masks trap respiratory droplets that are released when the wearer talks, coughs or sneezes. They are most effective when they are composed of multiple layers of a woven fabric such as cotton. Those additional layers do not increase the level of carbon dioxide in the air you breathe.

It is important that masks need to be fitted to prevent air leakage around facial contours. They should be snug with no gaps over the mouth and nose. 

Will we have to wear masks for the rest of our lives? It depends on how the majority of us across the country protect ourselves so that the virus runs out of host cells to mutate and grow. 

It is difficult to come to grips with infectious disease. There is no single answer, and when we consider supposed preventives, like vaccines, even those are not perfect. We can only do what we can do. And that is to get vaccinated, boosted, wash our hands frequently, and wear a mask. 

On a bright note, it is believed that the greater your physical activity, the lower your risk of hospitalization or death as a result of infection. But, to be clear, exercise is just like vaccinations, boosters, face masks and other recommended preventive actions, you may still get sick, but the chance of hospitalization and death are minimized. 

Bill Gindlesperger is a central Pennsylvanian, Dickinson College graduate, Pennsylvania System Of Higher Education (PASSHE) Governor, Shippensburg University Trustee, and Chairman of eLynxx Solutions. eLynxx software coordinates and drives communication, specifying, approval, procurement or production, reporting and activities necessary to obtaining direct mail, marketing materials, promo and all other printing. He is a board member, campaign advisor, successful entrepreneur, published author and commentator. He can be reached at Bill.Gindlesperger@eLynxx.com.