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What to Know about the Highly Transmissible Omicron BA.5 Subvariant

The omicron BA.5 subvariant is fueling a resurgence of COVID-19 infections—here's what you need to know to stay safer and healthier this summer.

After more than two challenging years of lockdowns and other COVID-related restrictions, people across the United States are ready to get back to some semblance of normal life this summer. However, the COVID-19 omicron BA.5 subvariant has called some of those plans into question, bringing a new wave of infections and debates about reinstating indoor mask mandates in some hard-hit locations.

“The BA.5 subvariant appears to have an advantage over prior strains of the COVID-19 virus,” says infectious disease specialist Dr. Eric Sachinwalla. “What’s unclear now is whether this subvariant is inherently more transmissible, if our immune response from the vaccines we’ve received is not as good against this mutation, or if our immunity from boosters is starting to wane. Likely, it’s a combination of each of these factors.”

Regardless of the reason behind the apparent higher transmissibility of this subvariant, Dr. Sachinwalla emphasizes that he doesn’t anticipate that BA.5 will disrupt our normal lives in the same way early waves of COVID-19 did.

Your Immunity: Possibly Waning, But Not Forgotten

In the face of any infection, COVID-19 included, your body responds by creating antibodies designed to fight off that infection. Over time, these antibodies naturally start to trend downward and your body’s ability to protect against infections will start to diminish as well.

“However, this does not mean that the immunity you’ve built to infections like COVID-19 and subvariants like BA.5 is completely gone,” says Dr. Sachinwalla. “Your body has other defenses like memory cells and T cells that help to protect you.”

Memory cells and T cells are lymphocytes, specialized white blood cells that play a critical role in your immune system’s response to infections. These cells remain in your body long after an infection or vaccination, and reactivate your body’s immune response when you are re-exposed to a virus like COVID-19 and its subvariants.

“While we may see an uptick in COVID-19 infections related to this subvariant, the good news is that cases of severe disease and the need for hospitalization are still relatively low,” says Dr. Sachinwalla.

Vaccines, Boosters, Antiviral Medications and Masks Still Work

Fortunately, the mitigation strategies we’ve learned over the last two years of the pandemic are still effective against the BA.5 subvariant. This includes getting vaccinated and receiving a booster when you are eligible. Both help to reduce your risk for developing severe disease and needing to be hospitalized.

Masks have been, and continue to be, effective in stopping the spread of disease.

“Look for a mask with a tight fit, which includes surgical masks with an adjustable nose bridge as well as N95 and KN95 masks,” says Dr. Sachinwalla. “Avoid cloth masks and gaiter-type masks, which are not as effective because the material is thinner and loose-fitting.”

Dr. Sachinwalla suggests thinking about a mask like an umbrella: You don’t use it in every situation, but are prepared to use it when the situation is appropriate. If you’re in a non-crowded space outdoors, you don’t need a mask. But you may want to use one in crowded indoor spaces like a grocery store or the subway.

In addition, antiviral medications have been helping to fight COVID-19 in people who have become infected, reducing the severity and duration of the illness.

“The medical community has learned a lot about COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic, and new therapies like antivirals are helping,” says Dr. Sachinwalla. “It’s important to use all of these strategies and tools to reduce your risk for getting severely ill. And if you do get sick, it’s important to stay home and away from the public as much as possible.”

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