New FLiRT Variant KP.3 Is Driving a Summer COVID Surge

Powered by the dominant new COVID-19 variant KP.3, a wave of summer COVID-19 infections may be upon us. But the size of that wave remains unknown.

Wastewater (sewage) testing, which can provide an early warning signal that COVID-19 is increasing, has recently shown “very high” levels of viral activity in Florida, Hawaii, and Montana, and “high” levels in Alaska, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, and New Mexico, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“As of June 11, 2024, we estimate that COVID-19 infections are growing or likely growing in 34 states and territories, declining or likely declining in one state or territory, and are stable or uncertain in 14 states and territories,” the CDC reported.

The CDC also noted that emergency department visits due to COVID-19 have risen by 12.6 percent over the week ending June 8.

 But hospitalizations remain low.

“We’ve seen a steady stream of people very sick with COVID but overall it’s still a handful,” says Peter Chin-Hong, MD, an infectious disease specialist affiliated with University of California San Francisco Medical Center. “Hospitalizations usually lag a little behind other COVID indicators, so I think we will see them increasing but not as much as in the past.”

He adds that many severe illnesses are now often avoidable due to vaccines and treatments such as nirmatrelvir-ritonavir (Paxlovid), which prevent an infection from becoming serious.

A New Variant Paves the Way for More Infections

The surge in new COVID activity appears to be due to the rise of a family of very contagious variants called FLiRT (short for the technical names of their specific mutations). These variants start with the letters “KP” or “JN,” and combined they currently account for more than two-thirds of cases in the United States.

The leader of the FliRT pack is a new strain called KP.3, which now makes up 25 percent of COVID cases, surpassing KP.2, which just weeks ago was the primary cause of COVID in the United States and now accounts for 22.5 percent of infections.

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