COVID may sometimes feel like a thing of the past, but the virus is still here, and cases are expected to rise this fall. And with a new COVID variant raising some alarms and filling up your feeds, you may be concerned about what’s ahead.
The B.2.86 variant, nicknamed Pirola, was first detected in Denmark in July and made its appearance in the U.S. in August. As of September, cases of the COVID strain had been confirmed in more than 10 states, including Washington.
Scientists and health experts agree that it’s still too early to know exactly how the new strain will play out during the upcoming respiratory virus season. Regardless, it’s important to protect yourself and others from infection or serious illness as we head into fall and winter.
What makes the new COVID variant unique?
Pirola is a “descendent” of the Omicron variant. (Yes…THAT Omicron – the strain that was responsible for big COVID surges in early 2022.) What makes this latest subvariant different from past strains, and what made health experts take notice, is that Pirola has multiple genetic mutations compared with previous Omicron subvariants. It also started showing up in several locations across the world within a short amount of time.
So, what’s the big deal with mutations? Here’s a simple breakdown:
- A spike protein, which is located on the surface of COVID, is how the virus enters the body. [Yuck.]
- Pirola has more than 30 mutations of the spike protein. [Yikes.]
- Initially, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) thought that this highly mutated “scariant” could evade existing immunity. [What the…?]
- Recent lab tests indicate that vaccines and prior COVID infections offer protection against severe illness. [Whew.]
In a nutshell, Pirola (at least so far) doesn’t seem to be as bad as health experts feared.
How transmissible is Pirola?
There may be indications that the strain is a bit more infectious than other variants, but it doesn’t appear to be more severe. It’s also unlikely this latest strain will cause the same kind of dramatic surge that happened in 2022.
That said, researchers will continue to closely monitor the variant and its impact on public health in the coming months.
How can I tell if I have the new Pirola strain?
It may not be easy to tell if you have the new COVID strain. The symptoms of Pirola are similar to other COVID infections and tend to primarily infect the upper respiratory tract.
The most common symptoms of Pirola, which may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus, include:
- Runny nose.
- Sore throat.
- Fever or chills
- Changes to your sense of taste or smell.
There have also been less-common symptoms reported, including:
- Eye irritation.
- Skin rashes.
Adults over the age of 65 and people with underlying medical conditions are at higher risk for more severe symptoms, including lower respiratory disease, chest pain and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. Unvaccinated individuals are also more likely to experience more serious illness.
How long do symptoms of the new COVID variant last?
From the onset of initial COVID symptoms, most people will begin to feel better within a few days or weeks. For people who experience more severe symptoms, recovery may take longer.
Is this strain sending more people to the hospital?
While there was a steady rise of COVID hospitalizations over the summer, most were caused by other strains of the virus. According to the CDC and other health experts, Pirola does not appear to be driving up admission rates. In fact, CDC data showed that hospitalizations decreased for the first time in more than two months as of the end of September.
Adults 65 and older account for the majority of COVID hospitalizations. Most of those hospitalized have underlying health conditions.
How can I protect myself from Pirola?
COVID vaccines significantly lowers your risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death if you get infected. And just like the flu vaccine, an updated COVID shot can help boost your waning immunity as we head into respiratory virus season.
Updated boosters, approved by the United State Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in September, are available in pharmacies, hospitals and clinics across the U.S.
According to the CDC, the new versions of the existing Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines should offer a good degree of protection against COVID variants, including Pirola.
Here are the latest vaccine recommendations from the CDC:
- Everyone 5 years and older should get 1 updated booster at least 2 months after getting the last dose of any COVID-19 vaccine.
- Kids 6 months to 4 years should get 1 or 2 doses of the updated booster depending on the number of prior doses they’ve received. For children who are not vaccinated, the CDC recommends 2 doses of the updated Moderna vaccine or 3 doses of the updated Pfizer vaccine.
Vaccination isn’t the only tool that can protect you from COVID. The following precautions are also effective, especially for individuals who may be at high risk for severe disease:
- Avoid big crowds.
- Avoid contact with people who have a suspected or confirmed case of COVID.
- Wear a well-fitting N95, KN95 or KF94 mask if you can’t avoid high-risk settings.
- When indoors, make sure rooms are well-ventilated.
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water.
- Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, or nose with unwashed hands.
Will my over-the-counter tests work to detect Pirola?
At-home COVID tests that are currently available should be able to detect Pirola or other COVID variants, according to health experts.
Be aware that if you take an at-home COVID test, you could get a false-negative result. That doesn’t mean you don’t have COVID. Home tests are less accurate than PCR testing performed by a health care clinician, according to the FDA.
If you’ve been exposed to COVID or feel ill (vaccinated or not), it’s a good idea to get a PCR test, even when an at-home test comes back negative. Indigo offers quick and reliable PCR testing and same-day results.
Sidebar: Free at-home tests are back
Beginning Sept. 25, households can order up to four free COVID tests from COVIDTests.gov. The tests are delivered via the U.S. Post Office.
What should I do if I have Pirola?
If you test positive for COVID, regardless of the strain you have, take the following steps to take care of yourself and prevent spreading the virus to others.
- Stay home and follow the CDC’s quarantine and isolation guidelines.
- Schedule an Indigo Virtual Care appointment to talk with a provider if you need to receive treatment. The antiviral therapy Paxlovid is approved by the FDA to treat COVID in adults at risk of developing severe disease because of age, underlying medical conditions or other risk factors.
- Notify anyone you have been in close contact with.
- Avoid sharing eating utensils, dishes, toweling and bedding.
- Clean high-touch surfaces with bleach-based solutions.
If you have any of the following symptoms, call 9-1-1 or go to your nearest emergency department:
- Difficulty breathing.
- Constant chest pain or pressure.
- Sudden confusion.
- Inability to respond.
- Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds (depending on skin tone).
Information about COVID changes quickly. For the most up-to-date news, check the CDC’s weekly updates on the Pirola variant for the latest.