Amid a summer increase in COVID-19 infections, a new version of the virus has become dominant nationwide.

Dubbed “Eris,” the subvariant known as EG.5 by scientists was first detected in Utah in early June, said Kelly Oakeson, chief scientist for next generation sequencing and bioinformatics for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services.

“It’s probably going to continue to grow over time.” Oakeson said, noting Eris, named after a dwarf planet, has a pair of spike mutations seen as making it more transmissible than earlier versions.

“This just seems to be like another one of those variants cropping up that we expect from time to time. There’s no more severe illness with this,” he said. “Am I changing any of my behaviors? No.”

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Eris accounted for an estimated 17.3% of COVID-19 cases in the United States during the two weeks that ended last Saturday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Just a month ago, only some 7.5% of U.S. cases came from Eris, another mutation of the omicron variant that drove case counts to record levels in Utah and the rest of the United States early last year.

It looks like Eris is also Utah’s most prevalent version of COVID-19, Oakeson said.

Utah’s numbers are likely similar to the CDC’s, but he said it’s hard to estimate how much COVID-19 it’s responsible for because of the increasingly limited samples from positive tests available for genome sequencing.

The CDC recently stopped providing regional estimates outside of the some of the most populated areas of the country for the same reason, Oakeson said. The most recent CDC data available for the region that includes Utah is from early July.

Eris has turned up both in clinical samples as well as wastewater in Utah, he said.

No new COVID-19 deaths reported in Utah over the past week, but some indicators released Thursday show the virus spread is continuing to increase. Those include the number of people hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19, up just under 24%, to more than 30.

Also, the percentage of emergency room visits for COVID-19 has risen more than 26%, but remains under 1%. The seven-day average case count, which does not include home test results, went from just over 57 to 68, nearly a 19% hike.

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At the same time, wastewater surveillance from samples collected at sewage treatment plants around the state found the amount of the virus is increasing at just under 23% of sites, although none currently have elevated levels of the virus.

Oakeson said the uptick is likely driven by Eris.

“The good news is, it’s not something brand-spanking new that has really nasty properties,” as happened when the original COVID-19 virus mutated into omicron, and before that, the delta variant that turned Utah and the mountain west into the nation’s virus hotspot in 2021.

But even with what’s been described as potentially a “late summer wave” of COVID-19, Oakeson said the numbers remain relatively low.

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“There’s not a whole lot of COVID in wastewater. That’s great. Yeah, we’re seeing a little bump in people being sick, but it doesn’t look like it’s this big, scary wave,” he said. “I think we’re good. We’re happy it’s not more severe.”

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Public health experts, including Oakeson, said staying home when sick is key to slowing the spread of the virus. Utahns will also be urged to get the updated COVID-19 vaccine — an annual shot for most — when it is released sometime this fall.

Eris has just been upgraded to a variant of interest by the World Health Organization, meaning authorities are keeping an eye on it but don’t yet consider it as a variant of concern.

The state will continue to monitor COVID-19 “as we get into respiratory season, as it gets back-to-school time, colder and we’re indoors more. All of those things tend to cause an increase in respiratory illnesses,” Oakeson said. “We’ll see what happens.”

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