Both federal and local health experts have raised Dallas County’s COVID-19 alert levels as the highly contagious COVID-19 variant BA.5 causes both case counts and hospitalizations to climb.
Dallas County moved its internal COVID-19 risk level to orange, or “extreme caution,” on Saturday, just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designated Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties as having high community spread of the virus on Thursday.
BA.5, an omicron subvariant that is now the dominant strain in the U.S., appears to cause less severe illness than its predecessors, although some people are still at risk, including those who are immunocompromised or over the age of 65.
Here’s what local health experts know about the circulating strain and what North Texans can do to protect themselves from it:
BA.5 is spreading fast
BA.5 is most similar to BA.2, another omicron subvariant that picked up speed in Texas in March, although it has a few additional mutations on its spike protein, said Dr. Jeff SoRelle, an assistant professor of pathology at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
The mutations make BA.5 harder for the body’s immune system to detect at first, even when someone has protection from the COVID-19 vaccine of previous infections.
Eventually, most immune systems catch on to the virus, but the mutations “give it enough of a chance to sneak past the defenses and start causing some trouble,” SoRelle said.
Symptoms to look out for
A BA.5 infection seems to come with the same symptoms as the original omicron strain, including headache, a sore throat, a runny nose, fever and fatigue.
While the loss of taste and smell were tell-tale signs of COVID-19 infection with the alpha and delta variants, they’re much less likely with infections from omicron and its subvariants. A May study from researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University found that chances of smell and taste loss were just 17% for omicron, compared to 50% for the alpha variant.
Most people who have healthy immune systems and are fully vaccinated won’t end up with severe illness from BA.5, but an infection can still make people feel pretty lousy, said Dr. Thomas Giordano, chief of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine.
“As a clinician, I would say it’s less severe, but as a person, I still don’t want to get it because I don’t want to be knocked out for a week with a flu-like illness,” he said.
There’s also the risk of long COVID, which can lead to sometimes debilitating symptoms like fatigue and neurological issues for months after an initial infection. It’s estimated that anywhere from 10% to 30% of COVID-19 patients might experience long COVID, according to the American Medical Association.
The vaccine still offers the best protection
Even though BA.5 is particularly good at evading immune responses, the COVID-19 vaccine still offers the best protection against severe illness and hospitalization, health experts say.
Kids 6 months to 4 years old can now get a child-sized dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while anyone age 5 and older can receive a booster dose. People who are older than 50 or are older than 12 and immunocompromised can get a second booster dose at least four months after their first.
The Food and Drug Administration has asked vaccine makers Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to develop vaccine boosters that target BA.4 and BA.5 as well as the original COVID-19 strain, although those shots aren’t expected to be ready until the fall.
CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky and other federal health officials have repeatedly said that people should get boosted now.
Giordano said that, while the question of whether to get boosted now or wait for the new booster cocktail is a tricky one to answer, he would still recommend getting boosted sooner rather than later.
“I would go ahead and get it and not wait until the new versions of the vaccine are released, especially if you’ve got anything of significance that you’re planning in the next two or three months like a trip or a wedding,” he said. “You don’t want COVID to mess those plans up.”
Recommendations for avoiding COVID-19 in the red risk level
- Wear a mask indoors when in public.
- Stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines, including booster doses.
- Get tested if you notice any COVID-19 symptoms.
- Increase ventilation when indoors by turning on fans or opening windows to increase air circulation.
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