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What you need to know about the new COVID-19 variant

Dr. Jonathan Pinsky: ‘It’s the most transmissible variant yet.’

Since 2020, the world’s known COVID-19 virus in its many variants: alpha, beta, gamma, delta - and all the subvariants of omicron (so far): BA.2, BA.4, BA.5 and BA.2.75.

But COVID by any variant name is still COVID. Currently, the omicron BA.5 subvariant is driving COVID cases across the U.S.

Dr. Jonathan Pinsky, medical director of infection control at Edward Hospital, explains what you need to know about the omicron BA.5 subvariant.

What makes this variant different?

The Omicron BA.5 subvariant is able to evade immunity from vaccines and past COVID infections, including infections from previous omicron variants, Pinsky said.

“So we’re seeing people that had Omicron in January and getting reinfected now,” Pinsky said. “It’s the most transmissible variant yet.”

Also, with vaccination rates high, unvaccinated people aren’t driving the spread, Pinsky said.

“The people getting these infections are vaccinated people,” he said.

Nevertheless, the COVID vaccines are still significantly protecting people from severe illness and death, he said.

“It’s just not as good as protection as it used to be,” Pinsky said.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms are fever sore throat, cough, diarrhea and dehydration, he said. People who are “more frail” are typically the ones winding up in the hospital, he said.

Still, he’s not seeing as much COVID pneumonia and respiratory failure as with the Omicron BA.5 subvariant.

“That’s very good,” Pinsky said. “Because we know COVID is out there and spreading rapidly. People are getting sick but we’re not seeing the severe outcomes from COVID anymore.”

However, two groups can still become severely ill: the unvaccinated and the immunocompromised. This last group includes people who are actively on chemotherapy, people with bone marrow malignancies, people who’ve had organ transplants, and people with rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, he said.

“But a lot of patients are now getting treated early with oral antiviral that is preventing hospitalizations, just like the monoclonal antibodies prevented hospitalization in the last wave,” Pinsky said.

Are the oral antivirals for everyone?

No, Pinsky said.

“They are only approved for those who are at high risk for developing disease – if you are over age 65 or have an underlying medical diagnosis that puts you at risk,” he said. “And they should be started when symptoms are mild to prevent severe complications.”

How do I protect myself?

Get vaccinated, get boosted.

“If you’re vaccinated, boosted and otherwise healthy, you’re not likely to get severely ill or end up in the hospital,” Pinsky said.

So I can skip the face masks?

That’s up to you, Pinsky feels.

But one reason “there’s still a lot of COVID” is due to the “lapse in mitigation” that’s allowing variants to evolve, he said.

Mild COVID is still nothing to shrug off.

“You will still feel sick and be able to transmit it to someone else who is more vulnerable,” Pinsky said. “There’s still a strong need to lower the infection rate…masks are still very important to limit the risk of exposure to the virus.”

Not only are you risking multiple reinfections, you’re also risking the possibility of long COVID, even if you’re asymptomatic or only mildly ill.

“We’re still learning about long COVID,” Pinsky said. “But that’s the big unknown. Even if you’re not getting mildly ill, you’re still at risk for developing a chronic problem with long COVID. I don’t think we have an answer for that.”