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Mask up, San Francisco: New Covid variant rising

Masked pedestrians walk down Clement Street in San Francisco on July 24, 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

As Covid cases creep upward in San Francisco, a new variant has emerged: EG.5, nicknamed Eris. The strain is a spinoff of the common coronavirus variant family, Omicron, and appears to be pushing Covid rates upward nationwide. 

Eris is now the most prevalent Covid strain in the country, accounting for 17.3% of all nationwide Covid cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Walgreens test positivity rates are rising in California, reaching 48.3% as of Aug. 8—nearly an 8% increase from the prior week and higher than the national positivity rate of 44.7%. 

As of July 26, the Eris variant accounted for roughly 8% of Covid matter in California wastewater, according to sampling from Biobot Analytics. The XBB strains—other Omicron subvariants spreading in the U.S.—account for nearly half of Covid matter in California wastewater, by comparison. 

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Masked pedestrians wait at a stoplight as they walk down Clement Street in San Francisco on July 24, 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Locally, it’s too soon to tell how much the new EG.5 variant has spread in the San Francisco Bay Area. Wastewater data only tracks the most recent dominant variant, Arcturus or XBB, and older strains. 

All strains of Covid are rising in Bay Area wastewater, however. 

Wastewater monitoring plants in San Francisco and neighboring cities like Palo Alto, Newark and San Leandro have documented a sharp uptick in Covid matter, continuing the upward trend that started in July. 

San Francisco’s Oceanside treatment plant, located on the city’s west side, saw a 209% increase in Covid matter in local sewage between July 9 and Aug. 9. The Southeast sewershed, which services eastern San Francisco, documented an 82% uptick in Covid matter in that same period. 

Cause For Alarm? 

Though the new Eris strain made headlines this week, officials say the variant is not yet a cause for concern. 

“The public health risk posed by EG.5 is evaluated as low at the global level,” the World Health Organization said in an Aug. 9 statement. “While EG.5 has shown increased prevalence, growth advantage, and immune escape properties, there have been no reported changes in disease severity to date.” 

In other words, the new Covid strain is expected to act much like previous variants, with the same symptoms and severity:  sore throat, cough, fever, runny nose and congestion. 

San Francisco’s hospitalization rates also remain relatively low, counting 37 Covid hospitalizations as of Aug. 5, according to the city’s public health department. 

"COVID-19 will remain with us for the foreseeable future, but we have many tools to slow the spread of the virus and prevent severe illness and hospitalizations," a Department of Public Health spokesperson said. "Currently, we do not expect more severe disease or hospitalizations for people who are up to date on their vaccinations."

The CDC has not changed its vaccine recommendations either. The agency urges people to stay up on existing inoculations and to get a booster shot this fall, when an updated Covid vaccine will be released. 

A healthcare worker prepares a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site in Times Square, New York, on June 22, 2022. | Source: Michael Nagle/Xinhua via Getty Images

“The updated vaccines are called ‘updated’ because they protect against both the original virus that causes Covid-19 and the Omicron variant,” the CDC wrote on its vaccine guidance site, noting that the original monovalent boosters are no longer FDA-approved.

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"We continue to urge all San Franciscans to stay safe by staying up to date on their vaccinations, having a supply of test kits, keeping masks handy when in crowded indoor spaces or when extra precaution is needed," a DPH spokesperson said.