The Latest Variant is Nothing to be Concerned About

January 9, 2023 By Alan Salzberg

There have been some alarmist articles lately about the new variant XBB.1.5.  See this one for example.  In New York, it's apparently around 70% of cases now.  

While we have very little indication of how much Covid there is out there, we do track serious Covid in the form of hospitalizations.  I looked at the data for NY, the XBB.1.5 hotspot, and found that this wave is not only not worse than last year's Omicron winter, but that this Winter is on track to be the least serious Covid Winter of the three we have had.

New York's current Covid hospitalizations are at about 4,000 now.  This is about one-third what they were last year at this time and less than half what they were in the first winter of Covid.  But these numbers are exaggerated because they count everyone who is in the hospital who happens to have Covid. Someone who comes to the hospital, for, say, a broken leg, and test positive for Covid, is counted among these hospitalizations.

Fortunately, NY State began tracking two types of Covid hospitalizations in January of 2022: Patients Admitted Due to Covid and Patients Admitted Not Due to Covid (but who tested positive on admission or subsequently).  What this data shows is that over the last year, about half the "Covid" hospitalizations were in fact hospitalizations for other reasons.

The graph below shows the three Covid winters.  Black is 20/21, Blue is 21/22 and Red is 22/23.  The dashed lines include all hospitalizations of people who were determined to have Covid.  The solid lines are strictly those who were hospitalized for Covid.  Note that the solid line does not exist at all for 20/21 because it wasn't tracked and only exists from early January onward of the 21/22 Winter.

You can see that if you stick to the overall numbers (the dashed lines), this winter is far better thus far, both in terms of total and in terms of how steep the increase is.  This is despite the killer variant everyone is talking about.  The second thing to notice is that the solid red line, which is this winter's hospitalizations due to Covid, seems to have already peaked and, though there is little overlap with last year's solid line (because tracking only started in Jan), it is clearly far below last year's peak (less than 1/3 as high).  

The peak NY Covid hospitalizations this year appeared to occur a few days ago, at about 2,000. This peak is on par with the flu. In the last three winters before the pandemic (17/18, 18/19, and 19/20), NY flu hospitalizations peaked at 2,500, 1,500, and 2,100 respectively (See this NY Public Health Report).  If this new variant really is very severe in terms of infection, we can expect that hospitalization rates are likely to be even lower in years to follow.

What's the net-net?  Just like with the flu, Covid does occasionally land people in the hospital, but there is no reason to be particularly worried anymore, and in particular, the current variant is nothing to be concerned about.