Health officials are carefully watching a new type of COVID variant that is spreading rapidly across New Jersey and the entire Northeast, causing an estimated 75% of new infections in the region over the past few weeks.

What has scientists concerned is the XBB.1.5 variant, a descendent of omicron, seems to be less likely to be neutralized by the immune systems of people who have been vaccinated and boosted, and those who already have had COVID.

“We’re paying very close attention to that, we’re watching what’s happening in hospitals both in New Jersey and around the world really on an ongoing basis,” said Dr. Ed Lifshitz, director of communicable disease service for the New Jersey Health Department.

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Don't panic

Lifshitz said there is no reason to panic but more people will probably become sick as the XBB variant takes hold and hospitalizations will rise.

“Of course people have been congregating more, we’ve had the holidays, Christmas, New Years, people have been moving about more, people are letting their guard down more than they were in past year. Yes, unfortunately there are going to be more people in the hospital and more deaths,” Lifshitz said.

Health officials expect COVID cases to rise as the variant spreads throughout communities.

“The virus has one huge advantage, and that is that reproduces incredibly quickly, literally in a person you’ll have a billion copies of it, trillions of them reproducing every single day.”

Making matters worse is the fact that winter typically keeps more people indoors for gatherings and activities.

Coronavirus Outbreak
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Boosters still offer protection

Lifshitz stressed getting one of the updated COVID booster shots is still strongly recommended.

“They’re not as perfect as we would like them to be but up to now we continue to see that those people who have been vaccinated and boosted do much better than those people who haven’t,” he said. “It can protect you against getting ill in the first place, and if it doesn’t prevent that and it might not, it is likely to prevent you from becoming seriously ill and of course dying.”

David Matthau is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at david.matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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