Under scrutiny is the Omicron BA.5

Let’s get personal.

My wife tested positive for COVID three days ago. At the same time and nearly 1000 miles away, my youngest daughter also tested positive shortly after attending a crowded indoor party. My sister tested positive three weeks ago following a wedding celebration, and one of my closest friends tested positive this month after performing in an international singing competition. It’s not clear where my wife got COVID — she has been extremely careful throughout the pandemic — but all the others were at super spreader events and were not the only people who tested positive after them.

And they were not alone. The president of the United States and the governor of Illinois both tested positive last week as well. The lesson here is that the Omicron subvariant, BA.5, is ridiculously contagious and almost impossible to avoid. An estimated 80 percent of all new cases in the U.S. are from this variant. I’m not sure why I continue to test negative(including most recently this morning) but my wife and I are wearing masks and maintaining significant social distancing.

So let’s talk about the good news regarding COVID-19.

First, although the latest variant is more transmissible than all the previous ones, it’s less deadly, especially in people who are fully vaccinated and have received at least one booster shot.

Second, the vaccines still lower the risk of serious disease and death, though only about 66 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated. I’ve seen patients with BA.5 in the emergency department this month. The overall numbers are definitely up, but admissions for COVID are rarer than with the original virus, the Delta variant, and first Omicron wave.

Third, there are effective treatments that reduce the symptoms of COVID-19. Paxlovid, three pills taken twice daily for five days, and Bebtelovimab, a monoclonal antibody delivered intravenously, each boost one’s ability to fight the virus. Fourth, although the pandemic won’t officially be over until the World Health Organization (WHO)

declares it to be so, I believe that the pandemic phase is over. There has been near universal infection. We’ve entered the endemic phase. That means, much like the flu, COVID-19 will never go away — the White House finally admitted that fact this past week — and BA.5 won’t be the last variant. There will regularly be new virus mutations leading to new variants.

Endemic COVID is not necessarily good news. In an average year the flu kills 30,000 Americans. Annual deaths from COVID-19 are projected to be significantly higher, with the biggest impact on the elderly, immunocompromised individuals, and the unvaccinated who have chronic comorbidities. Current deaths from COVID exceed 400 daily. And just like with the possibility of a future pandemic flu, COVID could once again become a pandemic if a deadly virus results from a mutation that enables COVID to evade our immune system.

Also, like with the flu, there may be annual COVID booster shots that will be formulated based on the most recent variants. Only about 33 percent of eligible Americans have received a booster shot. The next booster, which will target Omicron and its offspring, is anticipated to be available this fall. The importance of new boosters cannot be overemphasized because immunity after actual infection appears to wane rapidly.

Lastly, I would ignore any of the statistics about case numbers in the United States. They are grossly underestimated. As evidence, my wife, daughter, sister, and close friend are not in the statistics. They tested at home. And some people’s symptoms are so mild that they may never get tested at all.

So what can you do? Live your life as normally as you are comfortable. Test yourself or get tested if you have symptoms consistent with COVID, which are most typically a sore throat and cough, with fatigue and fevers also being common. Mask up if you have any symptoms, or when you feel you are in a high-risk situation. For example, I have been on 10 separate plane flights in the last few months. Although a mask is no longer required, I always wear an N95 or KN95 mask when I fly. Protect the elderly and other vulnerable populations. Finally, regardless of your vaccination or booster status or previous bouts of COVID-19, get the new shot this fall if that’s what the public health experts recommend.

Don’t worry, and don’t be surprised if you test positive for COVID sometime soon.

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