AUSTIN (KXAN) — As COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations rise again in Texas, health leaders are pointing to subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 as the reason for the spike. Here’s what we know about the recent mutations of the virus:
Severity of BA.4 and BA.5
Early research shows that the Omicron subvariants can cause more severe disease than the original Omicron strain, particularly in people who are unvaccinated or lack prior immunity, Austin health leaders said. It can also lead to more serious long-term illnesses.
“These two new subvariants that we see in BA.4 and BA.5 appear to cause more disease in lung tissue than the omicron variant that we had circulating in the January-February period,” said Dr. Desmar Walkes, the Austin-Travis County Health Department said.
Walkes said if BA.4 and BA.5 are indeed more severe, it could also mean more people are long-lasting with COVID, a term health experts are using to describe persistent symptoms like fatigue and brain fog.
In the meantime, says Dr. Ogechika Alozie of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 Task Force that he sees milder symptoms in his patients who are likely to have BA.4 and BA.5, particularly in those with immunity from vaccination or previous infection.
“It’s the scratchy throat, the rhinitis, the runny nose, the itchy eyes, a general malaise, what we would call malaise or lethargy,” Alozie said.
Transferability of BA.4 and BA.5
Research on the transferability of BA.4 and BA.5 is also still in its infancy. Health leaders agree that staying up to date on vaccines is the best way to protect against all variants or subvariants.
“Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 are even more mutated than the original Omicron, meaning our immune systems have a harder time recognizing these new subvariants, regardless of whether we’ve been previously vaccinated or infected,” tweeted Celine Gounder, infectious disease expert at New York University.
Health leaders have said that even if you got the original Omicron variant in late 2021 or early 2022, you’re still vulnerable to getting BA.4 and BA.5. But Alozie said the body’s immune system also deserves credit where it’s due.
“We know that after 10 to 12 weeks, your antibodies, which protect you from some of those initial symptoms, whether it’s vaccine-induced or viral-induced immunity, seem to wear off anyway. And that’s natural, isn’t it?” he explained. “You can’t walk around with a multitude of antibodies forever, otherwise your blood would be thick and brimming with different antibodies.”
Symptoms of BA.4 and BA.5
While some experience more severe illness on BA.4 and BA.5, the symptoms appear to be similar to those of omicron. Symptoms include:
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- traffic jam
- Muscle aches
Is COVID-19 spreading in Texas?
According to the Thursday update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42% of Texas’ population lives in a county classified as “high risk.” Corpus Christi, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio are all considered to be at high risk.
Each week since February 24, the CDC has assigned each county statewide a “COVID-19 Community Level” based on how the virus is affecting local populations.
The low, medium, and high risk categories are determined based on three factors: number of new cases in the past seven days, new hospital admissions in the past seven days, and percentage of occupied hospital beds used by COVID-19 patients.
In view of KXAN: Blanco, Lampasas and Milam Counties have all been upgraded to High Risk. Meanwhile, Gillespie, Lee and Mason Counties were upgraded from low to medium risk, joining Bastrop, Burnet, Caldwell, Hays, Llano, Travis and Williamson Counties.
You can read more about the current CDC levels in Texas in this story.
What do the CDC community levels mean?
The CDC has the following recommendations for people based on what COVID-19 community level their county is at:
- Stay up to date on COVID vaccines
- Get tested if you have symptoms
- Same precautions as for low risk and:
- Talk to your doctor about wearing a mask and taking other precautions if you’re at high risk of serious illness
- The same precautions as for medium risk and:
- Wear a mask in public
- Extra precautions may be needed in individuals at high risk of serious illness
You can use the CDC tool below to determine the community risk level in your county:
How to prevent BA.4 and BA.5?
The same applies to BA.4 and BA.5 as to previous waves of COVID-19. The best ways to protect yourself include keeping up to date on vaccinations, wearing a mask, avoiding large gatherings (especially indoors), and washing your hands.
If you have symptoms of COVID-19, stay home and get tested. Test locations in Austin can be found here.