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New York state health commissioner says new COVID variants are highly treatable

Centers for Disease Control

New York state’s health commissioner is offering guidance on how to deal with new COVID-19 strains that are emerging this summer.

In an interview, Dr. Jim McDonald said new strains of COVID are once again emerging, and infection rates are slightly on the rise. The current dominant variants are known as EG.5 – nicknamed Eris, which is also the name of the Greek goddess of chaos and a dwarf planet in our solar system – as well as FL.1.5.1.

The new variants have similar symptoms to previous strains, including fever, cough, sore throat, and a runny nose, as well as changes in taste and smell. While they appear to be even more contagious than previous versions of COVID, they are not believed to be any more severe than the recent, milder strains.

The health commissioner said that now, more than three-and-a-half years since the disease emerged, most people can regard it more like any other illness that requires prompt treatment and sensible precautions.

“If we get COVID, it's a treatable disease,” McDonald said in an interview with public radio. “Strep throat is a treatable disease, but it wasn't always a treatable disease. But right now, if we have a sore throat, we think we have strep throat, we go to our doctor, we get some penicillin. We're feeling better the next day.

“I'm not saying COVID is going to be like that,” he continued. “But I think we need to think about it that way. If you get sick with COVID, it’s treatable.”

Dr. Jim McDonald, New York state health commissioner.
Mike Wren
New York State Department of Health
Dr. Jim McDonald, New York state health commissioner.

For a long time, McDonald was a “novid,” meaning he never contracted COVID even though he actively saw patients during the height of the pandemic. He did wear personal protective equipment.

But he finally came down with the virus this past July. He said the way he handled the illness can serve as a guide for how seriously most members of the public should react when they see the telltale line that indicates a positive reading on a COVID test.

“Here's what I did when I got COVID,” he said. “I tested. Four hours after I had symptoms, I was testing positive.”

He said 22 hours after the positive result, he took his first dose of Paxlovid, an antiviral medication widely used to treat COVID-19 symptoms. McDonald, who is fully vaccinated and boosted, said it worked.

“Sixteen hours after I took my first dose, I could tell I was heading in the right direction,” he said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control continues to recommend that people who test positive stay home for five days to avoid spreading the virus, and if you have to go out, wear a mask.

McDonald said older people and those with underlying conditions need to take more precautions, including keeping up with booster shots. He said he’s been told by CDC officials that the latest booster, designed to react to the new strains, should be available next month.

“When it comes out, the third or fourth week of September, I'm hoping a lot of New Yorkers get their arm over to the pharmacy or their health care provider and get that new vaccine,” he said.

McDonald said he anticipates that the new vaccine will be available to everyone who wants one.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.