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Omicron BA.5: What you need to know

NIOSH-approved N95 masks are recommended to prevent the transmission of the COVID-19 omicron variant.
Jennifer Swanson/NPR
NIOSH-approved N95 masks are recommended to prevent the transmission of the COVID-19 omicron variant.

Summertime in the pandemic comes with the hope that we can do more of the things we love, safer. But sadly, this summer, an emerging variant is causing concern.

WBFO’s Emyle Watkins spoke with Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of infectious disease at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, in late July, about what we need to know about Omicron BA.5.


Watkins: As of July 23rd, Omicron subvariant BA.5 accounted for 81.9% of COVID infections in the United States [according to the CDC]. Now, as the predominant strain of COVID circulating, what is different about Omicron BA.5 compared to other variants?

Russo: The concern with the BA.5 variant is that it appears to be more infectious and is able to evade immunity from both prior infection and vaccination. However, the good news is if you're vaccinated and boosted, at least with that third shot, and if eligible for the fourth shot, you'll have a greater degree of protection compared to those unvaccinated individuals from being infected. And most importantly, a significant degree of protection from hospitalization and bad outcomes.

Watkins: That makes sense – especially with the CDC recently sharing survey data that shows nearly one in five Americans who had COVID in the past, still have “long covid” symptoms, which is one of the bad outcomes of COVID-19. Now, if I’m already vaccinated, how important is it to get boosted?

Russo: I think it's important to realize that if you have not been boosted, your protection against Omicron and the sub-variants, such as BA.5, which is circulating in this country at this time, is minimal. It's absolutely critical to get that first booster or your third shot of Pfizer (or) Moderna to receive significant protection against BA.5.

Watkins: Lastly, many of us have rapid tests at home, but how important is it to get tested, diagnosed, and treated quickly?

Russo: High-risk individuals can still have bad outcomes. If you fall in that category in particular, or even if you're fully vaccinated, and 50 years and older, if you develop symptoms, that could be COVID, please get tested as soon as possible. There is a new treatment called Paxlovid, that if taken within five days as development of symptoms, will significantly decrease the likelihood of you developing severe disease that results in hospitalization and death.

Russo also recommended that if you are at high risk for COVID-19, such as being unvaccinated or immunocompromised, you should wear a mask in indoor spaces where others are not masking. And if you don’t fall into these groups, you should consider the impact getting sick right now would have on you, when deciding if you will wear a mask.

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.