Don’t take off those masks just yet. COVID-19 appears to be spiking across the United States and a new variant is responsible for the sudden surge. Reuters noted that health officials are encouraging Americans to boost up against the BA.5 variant, which now accounts for nearly 65% of coronavirus strains across the U.S.
The unique variant, which shares similarities to its close cousin BA.4, contains three genetic mutations found in its spike protein that can evade immunity provided by vaccines. It can also reinfect those who have previously fallen ill with COVID. While hospitalizations remain relatively low compared to when COVID was at its peak, patients needing intensive care have risen by 23% over the past two weeks, according to CNN. The 7-day moving average for daily cases has also skyrocketed, up to 123, 365 this week alone.
BA.5 is rising among middle-aged Americans
During a briefing on Tuesday, Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, urged immuno-comprised Americans 50 and older to get boosted. Cases appear to be rising among the demographic.
“If you’ve not gotten a shot in 2022, first of all, getting one now protects you for the rest of the summer, into the fall. Second, it does not preclude you from being able to get a bivalent vaccine in the fall,” he added.
Research has shown that immunity begins to wane following infection or six months after receiving a booster shot; however, the vaccine does help to prevent severe hospitalization or death from variants like BA.5.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, also present during the briefing, said health officials still struggle to understand the unique strain.
“We do not know about the clinical severity of BA.4 and BA.5 compared to our other Omicron subvariants,” she explained. “But we do know it to be more transmissible and more immune-evading. People with prior infection, even with BA.1 and BA.2, are likely still at risk for BA.4 or BA.5.”
While highly contagious, infectious disease expert Dr. Fauci claimed that BA.5 does not appear to be associated with greater disease severity or hospitalizations compared to the most recent subvariants.
BA.5 could be dangerous for people of color
Still, the news is particularly concerning for people of color, as COVID disproportionately impacts the community. Black and Hispanic people are two times more likely to be hospitalized or potentially die from the disease. Black and Hispanics also risk developing illnesses like high blood pressure and diabetes, which could be dangerously exacerbated if infected with COVID.
Until more research is conducted about BA.5 and other emerging variants, it’s best to follow COVID-19 health and safety measures recommended by the CDC. Wash your hands often before eating food or touching your face and try to avoid poorly ventilated areas. COVID-19 has been known to spread quicker in small, tightly packed areas like bars or classrooms where airflow doesn’t allow for virus droplets to escape. Stay six feet apart from people when indoors or in public spaces and constantly disinfect common areas and surfaces with high contact like doorknobs, the kitchen faucet, computers, and desks. Most importantly, keep those masks on when entering crowded places. We’re not out of the clear yet.