More than 70 percent of adults age 50 and older haven’t received a second COVID-19 booster shot, and if you’re part of the pack, U.S. health officials say now is the time to roll up your sleeve.
Cases of COVID-19 are once again on the rise — hospitalizations are double what they were in early May — and a highly contagious version of the omicron variant, known as BA.5, is behind the uptick, accounting for about 65 percent of coronavirus infections in the U.S.
Those numbers could continue to rise, experts warn, largely due to BA.5’s immune-evading abilities. Here’s what you need to know about BA.5, including steps you can take to help stay healthy this summer.
1. BA.5 is “maximized to evade immunity.”
When viruses replicate, they can mutate. Some of them shift into less menacing versions of themselves, while others pick up changes that make them more problematic. It’s a process that we’ve seen play out throughout the pandemic with the emergence of alpha, delta and then omicron.
BA.5 is what’s known as a subvariant of omicron — think of it like a branch on the omicron family tree. It has several mutations that set it apart from other variants of the virus, including its parent variant. And these mutations — many of which are on the part of the virus that binds to cells — make it easier for the virus to dodge frontline defenses put in place by either vaccination or a previous infection.
Even those who had COVID-19 this winter or spring are susceptible to another bout with this subvariant, experts say.
“So it’s sort of maximized to evade immunity,” says Andy Pekosz, a virologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
2. It’s very contagious.
On top of its immune-evading skills, BA.5 also transmits from person-to-person more easily than others in the omicron family, including the original omicron variant (BA.1), which burst on the scene in late 2021 and caused the largest spike in infections to date.
“And those viruses were transmitting much, much more efficiently than previous variants,” Pekosz points out. “So it’s sort of reaching a pinnacle in terms of not only being able to transmit but also to evade immune responses that are present in the population, and that’s why people are really looking at this carefully and following the surge of cases.”
3. Symptoms still send some to the hospital.
“There’s no evidence to suggest” that BA.5 causes more severe disease than its predecessors, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., said in a July 12 briefing, though data is still being collected and reviewed. And the symptoms the subvariant causes seem to be similar to those brought on by its sibling strains. Fatigue, runny nose, sore throat, cough and fever are all common with BA.5.
“We’re not seeing loss of smell so much,” says Abinash Virk, M.D., a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Mayo Clinic. For many, it’s mostly cold- and flu-like symptoms, she adds, though “some people are still getting sick enough to get into the hospital.”
In fact, each day about 5,775 people, on average, are being admitted to the hospital for COVID-19, CDC data shows. Adults 70 and older are being hospitalized at a rate much higher than younger people.