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When can we stop worrying about COVID-19? Not yet, experts say

Scientists have suggested that once vaccines and treatment for COVID-19 became widely available, a surge might not require more than the basic precautions practiced during flu season. With the development of vaccines, pre-exposure treatment such as Evushield and post-exposure treatment such as Paxlovid, it’s natural to ask if that point has arrived.

Multiple infectious disease experts say it hasn’t. COVID-19′s new variants, lack of predictability and mysterious lingering side effects mean extra caution is warranted, they say.

“My little catch-phrase is: you may be done with the pandemic, but the pandemic is not done with you,” said Michael Teng, a virologist and associate professor at the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine.

BA.5, a sister variant of omicron, is now the most common culprit behind COVID-19 cases in Central Florida and the nation, wastewater data shows. That same data has shown concentrations of COVID-19 creeping up for months in the region.

At the same time, the ability to track the virus and assess risk to communities is dwindling due to the rise of at-home testing, Teng explained.

“I think a wave is already here. We’re just not capturing it with regular testing,” he said.

BA.5′s dominance means people who were previously infected with the COVID-19 omicron variant or who got vaccinated may not have much protection against further infection, which may lead to a rise of infections in the coming weeks, the White House said in a Tuesday briefing.

A report in the New England Journal of Medicine found BA.5 and other new omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.2.12.1, “substantially escape prior antibodies.” Another study published last month in the journal Cell suggests even boosted people may experience breakthrough infections with these new variants.

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Fortunately, there’s no evidence to suggest BA.4 or BA.5 are more severe, and vaccines are still expected to reduce the chance of severe symptoms or death, said CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on Tuesday.

“We know that … vaccine effectiveness … against severe disease and death remains high for other omicron sublineages and likely also for BA.4 and 5,” Walensky said.

While the majority of people in people in Central Florida have been vaccinated, few have taken a booster shot as of July 7, according to CDC data compiled by the New York Times.

In Orange County, 27% of total residents have been vaccinated with a booster, including 60% of residents over 65; in Osceola, it’s 25% of total residents, 59% of residents over 65; in Seminole, the numbers stand at 30% and 62%; in Lake, 30% and 60%. Across Florida, 28% of people have received a booster shot.

“This potential for increase is greatest where fewer people are up to date on their vaccinations and there is increased waning of immunity from vaccines,” the White House’s Tuesday fact sheet reads.

The CDC recommends a booster at least five months after a primary Pfizer or Moderna series. People who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should get a Moderna or Pfizer booster at least two months after their shot. A second booster is recommended at least four months later for adults 50 and over or anyone who is moderately or severely immunocompromised.

Elena Cyrus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Central Florida, notes hospitalizations have only slightly increased.

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From July 6-12, there were 5,015 confirmed hospital admissions across Florida, up 10% from the week prior, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

“There are minor increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations that are not at rates to overwhelm hospital systems and drive staff, equipment and treatment shortages … which was one of the main problems before,” Cyrus wrote in a Wednesday email.

As cases increase, hospitalizations will inevitably follow as more vulnerable and immunocompromised people become exposed, even if they don’t reach levels seen in prior waves, Teng said.

Right now, COVID-19 surges happen at all times of the year, unlike flu season, which can typically be linked to winter, Teng said.

“If we get to a point where it SARS-CoV-2 is also a seasonal virus … we can treat it more like the flu,” he said. “Then we have a prediction. We know when we have to start vaccinating to provide protection over the course of the season.”

Long COVID-19 is another obstacle that needs to be overcome before the U.S. can relax, said Cyrus in an email.

Much is unknown about COVID-19′s lingering effects. Early research suggests long COVID-19 can vary from mild to severe and attack multiple organs, Cyrus said. The American Medical Association notes anywhere from 10% to 30% of cases could result in long COVID-19.

“The best thing we can do is minimize our chances of getting the virus until we know more to address these long-term issues,” Cyrus wrote.

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The Health Report

Weekly

A weekly update on health news in Florida.

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The White House on Tuesday reiterated the wide availability of Paxlovid, which can be taken within five days of COVID-19 symptom onset by people 12 and up at high risk of severe COVID-19, such as those who are immunocompromised.

Locations offering Paxlovid can be found at covid-19-test-to-treat-locator-dhhs.hub.arcgis.com/.

In addition, a third round of free at-home COVID-19 tests is available to order at COVIDTests.gov.

Pharmacies across the U.S. offer free masks, which can be located at cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/free-masks.html

Bebtelovimab — a monoclonal shown to work against omicron — as well as Evushield, a pre-exposure monoclonal antibody treatment, can be located using Florida’s treatment finder at floridahealthcovid19.gov/treatments/treatmentlocator/.

Vaccines.gov can be used to locate COVID-19 vaccines for adults and kids as young as 6 months.

ccatherman@orlandosentinel.com; Twitter: @CECatherman

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