Why BA.5 is a game changer

By The Health News Team | July 20, 2022
Woman at her desk feeling stress

In March 2020, if someone made the suggestion we’d still be coping with COVID-19 more than two years after its introduction, it would likely have been brushed off as outrageous. But the arrival of the BA.5 omicron subvariant has proven the coronavirus can continue to surprise and affect us.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the BA.5 variant now accounts for the majority of new COVID-19 cases in the United States. Case numbers continue to rise, with many attributed to reinfections, and hospitalizations have also increased.

Due to the local rise in cases, the CDC recently moved San Diego County into its high-risk level for COVID-19. The high-risk level means COVID-19 is widespread throughout the region.

“Like most areas of the U.S., we are seeing an increase in cases in San Diego and that can be expected, of course, because people are enjoying summer, gathering and traveling,” says Dr. Abisola Olulade, a board-certified family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “But we also now have BA.5, and this is the most contagious coronavirus variant that we have seen to date.”

Why BA.5 is called the “worst variant”
While the severity of illness the BA.5 variant can cause compared to the other omicron variants is not yet known, it is known to be much more transmissible. The subvariant is also better able to evade immune responses caused by prior — even recent — infection or vaccination.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reports that the BA.5 variant has what is called a “growth advantage” over earlier omicron variants. “It substantially evades neutralizing antibodies induced in people by vaccination and infection,” he says.

However, Dr. Fauci confirms the COVID-19 vaccines remain effective against severe disease, hospitalization and death after BA.5 infection. Additionally, available treatments, such as Paxlovid, are effective in treating illness caused by the BA.5 variant.

Recommendations in response to BA.5
Amid the rapid spread of the BA.5 variant, public health officials remain confident they have the knowledge and tools to decrease the spread of COVID-19 and reduce serious illness caused by COVID-19 complications. However, they agree we must remain vigilant.

“We certainly don't need to panic, but at the same time, we need to realize that this virus has not gone away,” Dr. Olulade says. “We're not at the end of the pandemic.”

To avoid hospitalization and death and minimize disruptions to our daily lives caused by COVID-19, the White House COVID-19 Response Team recommends the following:

  • Remain up to date on vaccinations. COVID-19 vaccines remain the most important tool to protect people against serious illness, hospitalization and death. People age 6 months and older should get vaccinated and those age 5 and above should get a booster shot five months after completing their initial vaccination series. Individuals age 50 and older as well as those with compromised immune systems should receive a second booster.

  • If you have COVID-19, ask your doctor about available treatments, including Paxlovid. Paxlovid, an oral antiviral medication, can reduce the risk of hospitalization and death by 90%. Monoclonal antibodies given via intravenous infusion (IV) are also available and effective. If you have COVID-19 symptoms, you can get tested, be seen by a health care provider and receive treatment all in one place at a “Test to Treat” site.

  • Test if you have symptoms or before attending gatherings. Before attending a large, indoor gathering or spending time with someone at high risk of severe illness, consider taking a COVID-19 test. Testing helps to identify if you’re infected and also helps prevent spread. Follow CDC isolation guidance if you receive a positive test result.

  • Continue wearing a face mask in certain situations. Wearing a high-quality face mask in indoor, public spaces and on public transportation can prevent you from getting infected and spreading COVID-19 to others. It’s also important to remember COVID-19 — especially with the highly contagious BA.5 variant spreading — is transmissible outdoors. Consider wearing a mask at crowded outdoor events or if you’ll be in close contact with someone at greater risk of severe COVID-19.

  • Be aware of ventilation in indoor spaces. Improving ventilation by opening windows and doors and using indoor air purifiers can make a huge difference in reducing COVID-19 infections and spread.

Keeping the levels of virus as low as possible by following these precautions is the best defense against increased infections and the continuation of the pandemic, Dr. Fauci reports. “If a virus is not very robustly replicating and spreading, it gives it less of a chance of a mutation, which gives it less of a chance of the evolving of another variant,” he says.

Get COVID-19 vaccine information and access to COVID-19 resources from Sharp.

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