It may seem like everyone you know has COVID-19 right now—even people who are vaccinated and boosted or have had COVID-19 before. So, what gives?
While facing yet another surge is frustrating—especially if you have tried to be very careful in protecting yourself and your loved ones—the emergence of this new, even more contagious subvariant is not completely unexpected.
“Viruses like the COVID-19 virus evolve, and that has been happening since the start of the pandemic all the way through today,” says UNC Health infectious diseases specialist David Wohl, MD. “Every living thing tries to make more copies of itself, and that’s what this virus is doing. What we see are changes in the virus that allow it to be more easily transmitted from one person to another person, where it can continue to replicate.”
The good news is that while cases may be soaring, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are significantly lower than during the winter omicron wave.
We talked to Dr. Wohl to learn more about what this latest surge means. Here are four things you need to know about COVID-19 now.
1. Omicron subvariant BA.5 is the most contagious COVID-19 virus to date and is driving up the number of people who are infected.
BA.5 is a form of the omicron variant that swept through the country earlier this year. It has become the predominant variant of COVID-19 nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This is the virus’s most transmissible subvariant so far, and the immunity we have from prior COVID-19 infection or vaccination is not as active against BA.5 as it was for earlier variants. This is why BA.5 is spreading and even reinfecting some people who have already had previous variants, as well as those who are vaccinated.
“Omicron was a variant that was more transmissible than previous variants, and even within omicron, there are different types of the virus that have evolved to be more infectious. The most recent is BA.5,” Dr. Wohl says.
2. Vaccination still works to prevent severe illness—especially if you get the boosters, too.
Although BA.5 is spreading widely, relatively few people who become infected with this variant get sick enough to need to be hospitalized. This is because even though BA.5 can dodge some of the protection from infection that vaccination provides, it remains powerful in protecting against severe COVID-19. That is especially the case if you have received the COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.
The CDC recently released data that showed the risk of death from COVID-19 was four times higher for people age 50 and older who had just the first booster compared with those who had two boosters. The second booster is particularly important for those who are over 50 and immunocompromised.
“The vaccines that we have now are not obsolete. They do not work as well as they did to protect us against the original strain, but they still do reduce the risk of infection and really excel at protecting us from getting really sick, even from BA.5,” Dr. Wohl says.
New vaccines that target the omicron subvariants are due to arrive in the fall, and more people will be eligible for boosters then, too.
“Vaccinations definitely provide some protection early on in the first few months after getting boosted. If you’re eligible for a booster now, take the booster,” Dr. Wohl says. “There is no downside, and you can get the newer vaccine in a few months.”
Prior infection with COVID-19 also may provide some protection from becoming seriously ill from COVID-19. But data suggest that vaccination on top of prior infection provides better protection than infection alone.
3. Masks, avoiding crowds and physical distancing still work to prevent transmission.
Although hospitalizations have remained relatively low with the BA.5 subvariant compared with previous COVID-19 waves, many people still get very sick. And any COVID-19 infection still brings the risk of developing potentially debilitating long COVID, a syndrome with ongoing COVID-19 symptoms that can last for weeks or months after infection.
The methods we’ve used since the beginning of the pandemic to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 will still help us now. First and foremost, if you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you’re not boosted and are eligible for a booster, get boosted. If you’re eligible for a second booster, get a second booster.
If you’re going to be around other people in public places, such as a grocery store, wear a properly fitting mask over your mouth and, yes, also your nose. Wear a mask if you visit older or immunocompromised adults and if you’re indoors around people you don’t live with. (If you’re packed in with others outdoors, consider a mask then too; indoors is much riskier than outdoors, but the virus can spread outside.)
“We should recognize that with a more infectious virus, we should be doing more instead of less to protect ourselves and use the same strategies that have proven to be tried and true,” Dr. Wohl says. “Masking helps prevent you from getting infected, and it helps prevent you from infecting others. If you’re indoors without a mask around other people who are not part of your bubble, you risk getting infected now more than ever before because there’s a more infectious virus and because fewer and fewer people are masking.”
Physical distancing also can help reduce the risk of virus transmission. With BA.5, the space between people may need to be lengthened to reduce this risk.
Testing, including rapid at-home tests that can be bought at the drugstore or ordered at no cost from the federal government, is also helpful. If you are going to gather in a group, consider having everyone take a rapid test on the day of the event. A negative test means either that someone is not infected or that they have a low amount of virus present in their nose and are therefore unlikely to transmit COVID-19 to others, even though they will eventually test positive.
4. We have made significant progress in fighting COVID-19—even as new subvariants emerge.
More than two years into the pandemic, surges can be discouraging. But there are signs of progress, Dr. Wohl says.
“Right now, with how much COVID-19 we have, it’s remarkable that our hospitals are not overflowing with people on oxygen or on ventilators, so that tells you a lot,” Dr. Wohl says. “It tells you that even though people are getting infected and reinfected, they’re mostly not getting sick enough to require oxygen. That’s a big departure from what we were dealing with over the first year and a half before the vaccines came out.”
Visit unchealthcare.org/vaccine for the latest information on the COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.