BA.5 Means Now Is Not the Time to Relax About COVID

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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.)

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