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Here’s What You Should Know About COVID Variant, BA.5

Proof of a negative COVID-19 test is no longer required to enter most countries, including the U.S.; every state has dropped its mask mandate; and 66% of Americans recently said they feel as though their lives are at least somewhat the same to how they were pre-pandemic. Yet cases and hospitalizations are rising—again.

The pandemic is far from over, and it is even picking up steam as a new subvariant—omicron BA.5, which appears to spread faster than any previously known variant—becomes dominant in the U.S.

If you’ve gotten a little lax about pandemic precautions (like getting boosted, always masking in public, using rapid tests before indoor hangouts, staying home when you have symptoms, and getting regular PCR tests) in the past few months, know that, now more than ever, people should be utilizing these mitigation measures to keep themselves and their communities safe.

Of the variants the CDC is tracking, BA.5 now makes up more than 50% of all new cases. To put that into perspective of the number of actual sick people, the tracking data shows that, at this time last year (which, to be fair, was when a lot of people were freshly vaccinated and the delta variant wasn’t yet widespread), the average daily number of new cases was just over 9,000.

As of July 5, 2022—the most recent data available—that number is a striking 169,000 cases per day (a number that’s likely much, much higher due to the now-widespread use of at-home rapid tests). And at the end of June 2021, there were about 579 new COVID-associated hospital admissions per week, per the CDC; that same figure for June 2022 is a staggering 1,263.

One reason case numbers might be so high is that BA.5 doesn’t seem to be curbed by prior infection. Researchers in Australia—where BA.5 is also reigning—have seen that the variant is capable of reinfecting those who have recovered from COVID as soon as four weeks later. That’s true even for folks who’ve recently been infected with an omicron subvariant. It’s never been quite clear how quickly one can be reinfected with the COVID-19 virus, but four weeks is a drastic decline from the previous estimates of anywhere between 3 and 61 months of infection immunity.

BA.5 is also more infectious than previous subvariants, according to early research on cases in South Africa. A pre-print publication from South Africa shows that BA.5 could be as infectious as measles—which, until now, was the most infectious virus we knew of.

Another factor in the high case numbers across the U.S. is that BA.5 appears to yield less to vaccinations than previous variants. Those who are vaccinated and boosted—meaning 3 total vaccines for people aged 5 to 50 and 4 total vaccines for those 50 and older—remain the best protected against COVID, including the BA.5 subvariant.

But “best protection” doesn’t equal “impenetrable immunity,” so even those who are fully vaxxed still need to take precautions. (The FDA is also looking into whether BA.5 should be included in future booster doses, which could roll out later this year.)

The CDC currently does not have evidence showing that BA.5 is inherently more severe, but as cases go up (as they currently are), hospitalizations go up, and deaths, in turn, go up. Members of vulnerable populations are still at the greatest risk for severe infection, and when community spread is high (like it is right now), it’s important for people who are at lower risk to protect others by taking the sorts of precautions that have worked demonstrably well for more than two years.

The bottom line: Despite an urge to return to normalcy, the rise of BA.5 means it’s time to ramp up the precautions we know are effective. An upside to this otherwise grim situation is that we now know that a combination of masking, outdoor hangouts, better ventilation, staying home when you’re feeling sick or testing positive, and getting vaccinated and boosted are shown to greatly reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The same is true for the highly contagious BA.5 subvariant. So if you’ve been passing by your stash of masks on the way out the door, now’s the time to resume adding them to your mental checklist—keys, phone, wallet, mask. Thinking this is all over is (understandable) wishful thinking, but denial doesn’t keep any of us safe.

BA.5 Symptoms and Severity as Cases Surge

If you’re reaching for your mask again (or you never stopped wearing it in the first place), we don’t blame you. A new omicron subvariant—called BA.5—is now the dominant SARS-CoV-2 strain in the United States, and early reports suggest it is spreading quickly and widely. Hotspots have emerged in the Northeast and Midwest, according to a New York Times analysis, but COVID-19 cases are on the rise nationwide.

A lot of questions are swirling about BA.5, but how worried should you be? Here, SELF breaks down the most important questions so you can stay safe.

Is BA.5 the most contagious subvariant yet?

In short: yes. “BA.5 gets an A-plus for contagiousness,” William Shaffner, MD, a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, tells SELF. “It’s more transmissible than its parent, omicron, which makes it about as transmissible as our most contagious viruses. There have been some of my colleagues who compared it to measles, to which we give the gold medal.”

Given that BA.5 is also now the dominant SARS-CoV-2 strain in the U.S., there are rising case counts in many parts of the country. Some areas, like New York City, have upgraded their transmission levels to “high.” Local health officials have asked residents to take precautions, like wearing a mask in public and testing before and after travel.

But case numbers are on the rise nationally. This time last year, there were about 29,000 new cases reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) per day; currently, the average number of new cases per day is around 132,000. This number is likely much lower than the actual number of cases, experts speculate, potentially due to the use of at-home rapid tests.

BA.5 also appears to reinfect people who have previously had a COVID-19 infection. “That allows it to really move widely through the community,” Dr. Shaffner says. He likens COVID-19 reinfection to a “relatively minor illness, like a bad cold” for the average, healthy person—but the symptoms can greatly vary from person to person, and even reinfection can potentially cause severe illness.

It’s not yet clear whether health issues compound with each COVID infection a person has, but a preliminary study suggests that people who’ve been infected more than twice are at increased risk of severe illness or death. And every COVID infection carries the risk of developing long COVID, per the CDC.

Dr. Shaffner says it’s not yet clear how quickly you can be reinfected with BA.5, but he puts it in the range of weeks, rather than months.

What are the main symptoms of BA.5 so far?

Dr. Shaffner emphasizes that any data on specific BA.5 symptoms is anecdotal so far, as there haven’t been any large-scale studies on the symptoms of this subvariant yet.

“We’re hearing a lot about back and neck aches and pains,” Dr. Shaffner says. (Online, some people have shared that recent symptoms mimic those of meningitis, such as stiff neck and a severe headache.) “It’s all anecdotal, but as people have looked at previous variants, the distinctions between the variants have not been very large.”

Everyone is different. While one person may have a high fever and severe headache, another may have mild cold symptoms and no fever at all. It’s also not yet clear if BA.5 causes a loss of taste or smell—a once telltale sign of a COVID-19, Dr. Schaffner notes.

The important takeaway: If you start feeling sick, assume it could be a COVID infection, especially because a new, highly infectious strain is circulating. Your first test could come back negative, but it’s important to keep testing. The CDC notes it often takes several days post-exposure for a COVID infection to return a positive test.

Does BA.5 cause more severe COVID illness?

Again, Dr. Shaffner mentions there isn’t concrete research on whether the illness caused by BA.5 is more severe than previous variants. However, he emphasizes that even a “mild infection” is not something anyone wants to endure, as the illness can still lead to heavy fatigue, fever, and other unpleasant symptoms that may require some downtime to recover from.

People in vulnerable groups—including people who have underlying health conditions, people who are immunocompromised, pregnant people, and people over age 65—face the highest risk for serious illness. A higher risk also applies to people who are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated, which refers to those who received one or two vaccines but never got a booster (or two boosters for those who meet the CDC guidelines).

“COVID seeks out the unvaccinated and the partially vaccinated among us,” Dr. Shaffner says. “Those two groups continue to be the groups that are most frequently hospitalized.”

Do the current COVID vaccines protect against BA.5?

The best protection we have against COVID-19, especially severe illness that can lead to hospitalization, is full vaccination, Dr. Schaffner says. However, he never tells anyone that the vaccine makes them completely “safe,” regardless of the dominant strain. “Safe implies complete safety—I say your risk is lower,” he says.

Research has shown that the vaccines’ effectiveness wane after several months, particularly for older folks. “That’s why people are working to update the vaccine, but in the meantime, what we see is what we got,” Dr. Schaffner says.

To that end: Both Pfizer and Moderna discussed additional boosters with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in late June. Those boosters reportedly outperform the current vaccines and provide better protection against omicron’s highly infectious subvariants. Dr. Shaffner estimates those booster doses may start rolling out as soon as this fall.

And when the time comes, getting all recommended vaccines is the best way to protect yourself (and those around you) against COVID-19. “We can’t blow [COVID] off or think it’s going to disappear or that it’s gone,” Dr. Shaffner says. “The virus is in charge. The best response obviously is vaccines—they really work.”

Should You Be Worried About Outdoor Transmission During the BA.5 Surge?

BA.5—the omicron subvariant that emerged in South Africa in February before sweeping across the world—is now the dominant coronavirus variant in the United States. Thanks to a unique cluster of mutations on the spike protein, the part of the virus that latches to our cells, BA.5 is believed to be the most contagious strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, so far.

And it has been able to spread fast. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the subvariant is causing approximately 65% of the country’s COVID-19 cases at the time of publication.

It’s no surprise, then, that more and more stories have emerged of people speculating that they caught COVID-19 outside, which can be a bit unsettling to hear as cases continue to rise in many parts of the country.

The outdoors were originally believed to be the safest setting for social gatherings at the height of the pandemic, but you may be wondering if that’s still the case with BA.5. Ahead, experts explain what you need to know about this subvariant, outdoor transmission, and staying safe as you enjoy your summer.

Back up: Why is BA.5 such a big deal right now?

BA.5 caught the attention of public health experts after it quickly displaced the very transmissible BA.1 and BA.2 omicron subvariants. Though the BA.5 wave hasn’t caused a significant spike in hospitalizations or deaths in South Africa, certain locations hit by BA.5, like Portugal, have seen an uptick in hospitalizations. Upon taking a closer look at the new subvariant, scientists discovered that BA.5 has mutations in the spike protein that may allow it to evade the immune system’s first line of defense—antibodies—raising the likelihood that it’ll cause a new wave of infections and reinfections, especially in people with low or waning immunity.

However, early evidence suggests that the vast majority of people with some immunity, either from prior COVID infection or vaccination, will continue to be protected from severe illness, according to preliminary research.

Data from South Africa found that two doses of the vaccine provided up to 87% of protection against hospitalization with BA.5, as Bloomberg reported. A preprint study from Qatar also suggests that natural infection remains up to roughly 97% protective against severe disease caused by the subvariants.

So should you be worried about outdoor transmission as BA.5 surges?

Experts say outdoor transmission has always been a thing—with alpha, delta, omicron, and now BA.5. “Yes, you can catch BA.5 outside, but it’s more likely that you’ll catch it indoors than outdoors. This was true for the other variants too,” Linsey Marr, PhD, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who studies viral transmission, tells SELF.

Outdoor activities are inherently safer than indoor gatherings, Dr. Marr says. But BA.5’s heightened transmissibility will ultimately lead to more indoor and outdoor spread. “It appears that outdoor transmission has become more likely with the newer variants over the past year (i.e., since delta) as they have become more transmissible, but outdoors remains a much lower-risk setting than indoors,” Dr. Marr explains.

Viral particles disperse more quickly outside, thanks to wind speed and air currents. But the same factors that make indoor settings risky—crowded spaces, poor air circulation, the sharing of food and drink—can also increase your chances of contracting COVID outside. So attending a tightly packed outdoor concert and sharing your drink with a friend tends to lend itself to a higher transmission risk than, say, a park picnic in an open space with a couple of friends who aren’t sitting close to you.

Rodney E. Rohde, PhD, a virologist and professor of clinical laboratory science at Texas State University, tells SELF that many people have seen the outdoors as a “get out of jail free card”—but that has never really been the case. “It’s all about how close you are to that person coupled with airflow [turnover] and ventilation of the space you are in, whether that is indoors or outdoors,” Dr. Rohde says.

Research suggests that outdoor transmission, when it does occur, typically results from prolonged close contact. A computer modeling study conducted in 2021 found that certain conditions—like wind speed and direction and cool, moist ground temperatures—play an important role in airborne transmission. “Wind is typically good because it will lead to more rapid dilution [of particles], but you should pay attention to wind direction and avoid being close and directly downwind of others,” Dr. Marr says.

How to stay COVID safe this summer

Dr. Rohde says nothing has fundamentally changed after omicron, except for people’s general attitudes about the pandemic. The same tried-and-true measures that have been encouraged since 2020—washing your hands often, wearing a high-quality mask, testing regularly, and staying up to date with boosters—still work to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Outdoor spaces, though they aren’t 100% risk-free, remain the safest environments to socialize in, according to Dr. Rohde. Once you head inside, especially in packed areas with low air turnover, there tends to be high transmission of the virus, so plan accordingly. “Masking in those environments, distancing, and vaccination are still effective preventative tools for us to utilize,” Dr. Rohde says.

Sources:

https://www.self.com/story/covid-ba5-variant-symptoms-severity#intcid=_self-bottom-recirc_8f7b9792-22f8-4674-a71d-113277afad9c_text2vec1

https://www.self.com/story/covid-ba5-outdoor-transmission-risk

https://www.self.com/story/ba5-variant-omicron-spread#intcid=_self-bottom-recirc_8f7b9792-22f8-4674-a71d-113277afad9c_text2vec1

https://www.usnews.com/news/top-news/articles/2022-07-05/omicron-sub-variants-ba-4-ba-5-make-up-70-of-covid-variants-in-u-s-cdc

https://www.thehealthsite.com/news/covid-not-over-the-shape-shifting-ba-5-omicron-variant-may-be-the-worst-so-far-893778/

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