Federal and local health experts have raised Dallas County’s COVID-19 alert levels as the highly contagious variant of COVID-19 BA.5 spikes case counts and hospitalizations.
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 United States, appears to cause less severe disease than its predecessors, although some people are still at risk, including those who are immunocompromised or over the age of 65 years.
Here’s what local health experts know about the circulating strain and what North Texans can do to protect themselves from it:
BA.5 spreads rapidly
BA.5 is most similar to BA.2, another omicron subvariant that accelerated in Texas in March, although it has some additional mutations on its spike protein, said Dr. Jeff SoRelle, professor pathology assistant at UT Southwestern Medical. Center.
The mutations make BA.5 harder for the body’s immune system to detect early on, even when someone is protected with the COVID-19 vaccine from previous infections.
Eventually, most immune systems catch the virus, but mutations “give it enough of a chance to sneak past defenses and start causing problems,” SoRelle said.
Symptoms to watch out for
A BA.5 infection appears to be accompanied by the same symptoms as the original omicron strain, including headache, sore throat, runny nose, fever, and fatigue.
While loss of taste and smell were telltale signs of COVID-19 infection with alpha and delta variants, they are much less likely with infections with omicron and its subvariants. A study conducted in May by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University found that the risk of loss of smell and taste was only 17% for omicron, compared to 50% for the alpha variant.
Most people who have a healthy immune system and are fully vaccinated won’t end up with severe BA.5 disease, but an infection can still make people pretty ugly, said infectious disease chief Dr Thomas Giordano. at Baylor College of Medicine. .
“As a clinician I would say it’s less serious, but as a person I still don’t want to catch it because I don’t want to be knocked out for a week with a flu-like illness,” a- he declared.
There is also a risk of prolonged COVID, which can lead to sometimes debilitating symptoms like fatigue and neurological problems for months after an initial infection. It’s estimated that 10 to 30 percent of patients with COVID-19 could experience long COVID, according to the American Medical Association.
The vaccine always 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 serious illness and hospitalization, according to health experts.
Children 6 months to 4 years old can now receive a dose of the child’s COVID-19 vaccine, while anyone aged 5 and over can receive a booster dose. People over 50 or over 12 years of age who are immunocompromised can receive a second booster dose at least four months after the 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 strain of COVID-19, although those vaccines are not expected to be ready before fall. .
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky and other federal health officials have repeatedly said people should be stimulated now.
Giordano said that while it’s hard to answer the question of whether to get boosted now or wait for the new booster cocktail, he would still recommend getting boosted as soon as possible.
“I would go ahead and not wait for new versions of the vaccine to be released, especially if you have something big you are planning in the next two or three months, like a trip or a wedding” , he said. “You don’t want COVID to mess up those plans.”
Recommendations to avoid COVID-19 in the red risk level
- Wear a mask indoors when out in public.
- Stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines, including booster doses.
- Get tested if you notice symptoms of COVID-19.
- Increase indoor ventilation by turning on fans or opening windows to increase air circulation.