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A little spot of Covid

I tested positive for Covid today – four years, three vaccinations, and two booster shots after the virus totaled life as we knew it. On my home kit test, a telltale pink line sat next to blue, warning of incoming chills, low-grade fever, coughs, and sore throat as baleful Omicron mutants got to work.

It’s an out-of-body experience, watching my hapless body battle an adversary I know only as XBB.1.16 or Arcturus, the moniker for the current dominant strain. Health officials say the original Omicron variant has vanished after birthing a new pantheon of sub-variants.  According to Dr. Ben Neuman of Texas A&M, the current variants are about seven mutations different from the original Omicron, with the XBB.1 about six mutations away.

Am I worried? Not really, because I trust the cocktail of vaccines inside me that will keep serious infection at bay. But in the middle of statewide masking rollbacks, I may just hang on to my mask a little longer because the universe just issued a reminder that COVID19 is here to stay.

Ironically, just two days before my fickle body caved in to an invisible foe, I attended an April 28 EMS briefing that said just that.

COVID19 – it ain’t over yet, folks.

What is Arcturus?

Arcturus is the unfortunate misnomer given to the new XBB.1.16 variant that first emerged in India. To fans of the night sky, Arcturus is better known as the third brightest star within the northern constellation of Boötes.  But in the panoply of variants, one thing that makes Arcturus stand out is its high rate of transmissibility. That’s why the World Health Organization (WHO) will continue to monitor Arcturus, though they haven’t classified it as a serious variant of interest.

What Experts Think

At the briefing, experts said that Arcturus is surging in India and emerging in at least 29 other countries. In the U.S. Arcturus accounts for 10% of new COVID infections.

The WHO notes that Arcturus has one more mutation in its spike protein than the prevailing XBB 1.5 variant, which may make it more infectious. One symptom of the new sub-variant is conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye. Mercifully, Arcturus hasn’t visited this symptom upon me, so far.

Living like it’s 2019

I’m curious why I, a reasonably healthy, vaccinated, boosted, masking adherent got infected.

The briefing revealed some answers.

People are more willing to take risks because the state of COVID feels reasonably mild, and remarkably stable compared to the last three years, said Dr. Wachter. He is Professor and Chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

People are starting to live life as if it was 2019. “They say, oh, look, COVID is pretty much gone away. I can go back to my normal life.” Given that state and federal mandates about masking in public spaces have changed, “It’s very clear that in most places, people have ditched the masks.”

The large majority of people are much more relaxed about their personal infection control, added Dr. William Schaffner. He is Professor and Chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

For about 6 months at the pandemic’s start people were scared, added Dr. Wachter. Then in the U.S., the kind of libertarian streak that pushes us “to say, you know, who are you to tell me I need to wear a mask or shut down my business, or get vaccinated,” kicked in.

Our weird information system, remarked Dr. Wachter, asserted itself through the misinformation engine, and through major pushbacks against anything that resembled a mandate. Despite the existence of unbelievably effective vaccines, only a minority of people take them “because they have been told things that are mostly wrong.”

“It could be the next one is worse. In some ways, the misinformation stuff makes us less well prepared.”

Arcturus is not a gamechanger

Every several months, a mutation from the same family of variants emerges that is “a little bit better at its job, and infecting people and evading immunity, but not a game changer,” explained Dr. Wachter. But though Omicron variants are spreading, they seem to be producing milder disease and less frequent hospitalizations. The level of protection is very high and the therapies, testing, treatments, vaccine, and boosters still work well. All of this can create an illusion of normalcy.

But the reality is COVID has not disappeared in the U.S. warned Dr. Schaffner. ”Nearly 200 to 300 die from the virus on a daily basis.”

Who should consider a booster?

The panel agreed unanimously that taking precautions like a booster decreases the chance of getting COVID, or of getting very sick if infected. It also lowers the probability of long COVID.

According to Dr. Wachter, the highly contagious viruses can continue to produce mild infection, “but it does not require your hospitalization, intensive care unit admission and dying.”

Dr. Schaffner urged older people to take advantage of the new bi-valent booster, as well the influenza vaccine and an RSV vaccine available in the fall. Immuno-compromised people are eligible for another booster if it’s been at least two months since their previous booster.

For folks like me, four months should elapse before we become eligible for a booster, but in the interim, hybrid immunity will offer protection. We’re vaccinated and have had COVID.

It’s clear, added Dr. Wachter, that variants can find you and give you a mild infection. It’s why we say that “this virus has not disappeared.”

What the future holds

Funding for new vaccines and a backlog has put COVID “kind of on the back burner,” said Dr. Benjamin Newman. He is Professor of Biology and Chief Biologist at the Global Health Research Complex at Texas A&M University.

At a national level, funding for some of the COVID vaccines has been restricted. Secondly, incentives for development “are a little bit more mixed. It’s very expensive to produce and test and, roll out a new vaccine,” he added.

Dr. Neuman explained that creating Covid vaccines is difficult. No two variants are the same size or the same shape. “There’s a range. The one part we vaccinate against is the spike.” The spike is covered with long loops that have large sugar molecules as camouflage – they are the parts that the virus changes. “And when it changes, your immune system can’t recognize it….and then you get sick.”

A bandanna will not cut it

“I think the masking literature is now all over the map,” remarked Dr. Wachter. But what’s clear is wearing a good mask like a KN95 or N95 lowers the probability of getting COVID. It’s even lower if both parties are wearing a mask.  The quality of the mask and the fit is important.

A bandanna will not cut it.

It’s also important to recognize that masking will lower the probability of getting COVID significantly, he added, but not to zero.

Recent evidence, said Dr. Neuman, shows the sequence of the new XBB.1 variants are different enough from the current vaccine strains to breakthrough in many cases. “There is potential for that if we’re not masking.”

COVID was still the number three cause of death in the United States in the last year. And unlike number one and number two COVID is completely preventable through public health measures.

“If we have to mention masking,” added Dr.Neuman, “I would say condoms prevent babies, masks prevent infectious disease. You’ll hear a lot of argument about wearing both of them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t work.”

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Meera Kymal is the Managing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...