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  5. 6 COVID experts explain why Omicron BA.5 is such a concern, and what they're doing to avoid it

6 COVID experts explain why Omicron BA.5 is such a concern, and what they're doing to avoid it

Hilary Brueck,Natalie Musumeci   

6 COVID experts explain why Omicron BA.5 is such a concern, and what they're doing to avoid it
  • The Omicron subvariant BA.5 is causing a fresh wave of reinfections in some people who recently had COVID.
  • BA.5 is more immune evading than other variants — prior infections and vaccines don't totally stop it.

Like the Delta variant did last year, the new coronavirus subvariant BA.5 is putting a dent on summer fun — and experts say it's only going to get harder to avoid it in the weeks and months ahead.

"Those of us who've escaped for 2.5 years? It's gonna be hard to escape this one," Dr. Preeti Malani, an infectious disease physician from the University of Michigan, told Insider.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said much the same.

"You cannot avoid a respiratory virus like this forever, unless you completely cease interaction with all other human beings," he said.

COVID-19 reinfections are spiking around the globe — in some cases, even people who were infected just weeks or months ago are getting hit with COVID again.

"If you were infected with the original Omicron, or even BA2.12.1, the immunity from those infections does not protect very well against BA.4 and BA.5," leading infectious disease expert Dr. Celine Gounder, editor at large for Public Health at Kaiser Health News, told Insider.

The good news is vaccines still do very well at preventing serious disease in most people, and there are now evidence-based treatments (like Paxlovid) that work well for vulnerable populations, especially when taken early.

But it is getting trickier to avoid a COVID-19 infection altogether, so it's good to develop your own BA.5 action plan.

Here's what you need to know and how to reduce your risk, according to Gounder, Malani, Adalja, and three other experts.

1. Wear a mask, and reduce social contact before you see older relatives

Public health expert Katelyn Jetelina, who runs the popular "Your Local Epidemiologist" blog, told Insider she's still wearing a mask in "crowded, public indoor areas," and making it a priority to do a rapid test "before seeing vulnerable people, like my 92-year-old grandpa."

Malani said that about a week before a recent vacation with her family, she told everyone to "tighten up" their precautions.

"That means wear your mask at work," she said, and avoid "slumber parties."

"We can all do our part to try and protect people, but we also have to find ways to do the things that are really important to us," she said.

2. Infection risk is now very high in crowded spaces — even outdoors

Caroline Zeiss, a professor of comparative medicine at Yale, told Insider she's still "being careful" when in crowded, indoor spaces.

While Zeiss doesn't have "that kind of real fear that I used to have" about getting COVID, now that vaccines and treatments are widely available, "it just seems like everyone around me is getting it now."

"This is expected, as we become progressively more immune, the virus is escaping immunity in order to maintain its fitness," she said.

Experts agree that outdoor gatherings are still a good idea, because it's hard for the virus to get passed around between people when there's fresh air circulating everywhere. But given how transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 are, some pros are now reconsidering putting on masks outside, especially when they're in a crowd.

"The chances of being around someone outside or inside who is shedding virus is very high," infectious disease expert Dr. John Swartzberg from The University of California, Berkeley, recently told the San Francisco Chronicle.

"If I was crowded together with other people where I couldn't keep my distance, or if somebody near me was talking loudly or singing, I would just carry a mask with me and put it on if I feel uncomfortable."

3. Get vaccinated and boosted

Because vaccines are less protective against BA.4 and BA.5 infections, it's especially important for the most COVID-vulnerable people to make sure they're up to date on their COVID-19 shots.

Adults over 50 in the US, as well as anyone who's immunocompromised over age 12, should have had two boosters by now to better protect against severe disease outcomes with BA.5, Gounder said.

Aside from vulnerable populations, Gounder is worried about people who are completely unvaccinated, as federal hospitalization and death data suggests that prior infections are less protective than vaccines against the worst COVID-19 outcomes.

"The counties that have the biggest increase in hospitalizations are counties that have lower vaccination rates," she pointed out.

Zeiss recently authored a study that suggested we have at least another two years of "repeated waves of infections" until things stabilize. "So, we're all going to be seeing the virus multiple times."

Luckily, her new modeling also suggests that continuing to vaccinate through those new waves could help a lot.

"What vaccination does, it gives you a set dose, and it's known from the clinical trials how much immunity that will evoke, and it's known that that's protective," she said. She's hopeful that Omicron-tailored vaccines, slated to be rolled out this fall, will help speed up our progress.

4. If you're high risk, make sure you have access to Paxlovid — and take it as early as possible if you get sick

If you're someone who has a known risk factor for severe COVID, it's key to be "cognizant that cases are up," Adalja said. Have a plan to get Paxlovid (available for free across the US) "as quickly as possible if you do test positive," and know where you might be able to access monoclonal antibodies.

No matter who you are, being outside, social distancing, and wearing a mask at critical moments is still important. Consider staying home if you feel a little sick.

"A little tickle in your throat? That might be COVID," Malani said. "If you're with other people, put a mask on."

5. Improve indoor air quality

In addition to masking, vaccinating, and treating, improving indoor air quality, through ventilation (like open windows), filtration, and UV germicides is going to be critical, Gounder said.

"Because fewer people are willing to mask, I think it makes it that much more important that we look at improving indoor air quality," she added.

6. Accept that it's probably going to be years before COVID variants slow down, experts say

A "post-pandemic world," experts agreed, is one where COVID-19 is present, but much more manageable.

"I don't think enough people are understanding that," Adalja said. "They somehow think that one day COVID-19 is going to go away — like a hurricane, it's going to pass and it's going to be gone, and it's going to be 2019 all over again."

Unlike in 2019, now we understand what works well to fight COVID — and the same lessons we've learned over the past two years remain true.

"Honestly, I'm not doing anything differently," Gounder said. "I've been doing the same thing I've always been doing, which is: masking in indoor public places, masking on the plane, testing if I'm going to be indoors in a smaller group with people."


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