What you need to know about COVID subvariants BA.5 and BA.2.75

Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/TNS

NEW YORK — Although new omicron subvariants are again driving COVID-19 hospital admissions and deaths higher in recent weeks, Americans are less inclined to mask up and get boosters because of pandemic burnout. Consequently, it’s a new opportunity for the mutating virus to reinfect the population with a different strain.

Speaking at the White House earlier this week, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explained that the highly transmissible BA.5 makes up about 65% of the cases. BA.2.75 is responsible for a much smaller number but could grow.

Question: What is BA.5?

Answer: First identified in January, BA.5 is a sister variant of the omicron strain that was globally dominant since the end of 2021 in countries including South Africa where it was first discovered, including parts of Europe, the United Kingdom and Australia.

According to the World Health Organization, which has been tracking BA.5 since April, it has been identified in 52% of cases in late June, up from 37% in one week. In the United States, it is estimated to be causing around 65% of infections.

Q: Is it spreading in New York?

A: BA.5 is now dominant in New York and is driving rapid community spread.

Cases throughout the U.S. are rising and official figures now reflect around 100,000 cases a day. Health officials believe those numbers dramatically understate the true number of people who are getting COVID because most people are using home tests and are not reporting their positive results to officials.

Doctors note that there is no sign that BA.5 causes more serious illness than previous strains but it’s not necessarily milder, either.

Q: Are more people getting sick and dying?

A: Yes and no. Hospitalizations are rising and more people are getting seriously ill. About 40,000 Americans are now hospitalized for COVID.

The death toll has also risen to about 400 Americans a day. That number may seem modest compared to the thousands who perished during recent surges, but experts say it is still unacceptably high.

COVID has already killed more than 1 million Americans since it first hit the country in 2019.

The numbers of serious illnesses and deaths are being kept in check by the fairly robust immune defenses most Americans received from either vaccinations, previous infections or both.

Q: What is BA.2.75?

A: BA.2.75 is an offshoot from BA.2, a previous subvariant of omicron.

It has been spreading quickly overseas, particularly in India, an early sign that it may soon displace BA.5 worldwide, including in the U.S.

The WHO stated that the pandemic remained a global health emergency, and countries should consider public health measures like masking and social distancing when cases surge, alongside vaccinations.

Q: Will COVID-19 surge again?

A: Bet on it. Even if BA.2.75 fizzles, doctors say it is virtually certain that it or some other strain of COVID will drive a new surge in cases after BA.5.

That’s because the virus is still spreading widely in the U.S. and around the world. There is nothing stopping it from mutating into more contagious strains as it keeps on doing.

Q: When will the pandemic ever end?

A: History says the pandemic will eventually end but it’s not clear when or how.

Many experts believe that people will eventually obtain a high enough level of immunity from much more widespread vaccinations and/or infections to tamp down the pandemic.

It’s also possible that the trend of recent COVID variants being more contagious but causing less severe illness could offer a path to an endemic meaning its consistently present but limited to a particular region.

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