The CDC and the World Health Organization are keeping a close watch on two new Covid Omicron subvariants: BA.4 and BA.5. The subvariants, which were first detected in South Africa in January, now account for 13 percent of new cases in the United States.
BA.4 and BA.5 are present in more than 50 countries, including the United States. So far, cases have been found in Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. Three cases of BA.4 have also been found in Miami-Dade County, but so far, none have been reported in Sarasota-Manatee.
The trajectory of these subvariants—and what they mean for Covid cases locally and nationally—is still unclear. While BA.4 and BA.5 are more contagious than previous strains, they cases they're producing aren't as severe.
Locally, Sarasota-Manatee saw a massive surge of Omicron cases in December 2021, coupled with the rise of the BA.2.12.1 subvariant, or "stealth Omicron," a highly mutated strain. Experts think that Sarasota-Manatee's current rise in cases is still due to "stealth Omicron."
"Omicron in December was extremely contagious, and we didn't have as many people previously infected or as many people vaccinated [as we do now]," Sarasota Memorial Hospital's infectious disease specialist Dr. Manuel Gordillo said in a video for the hospital.
"After the wave of BA.1, many people acquired hybrid immunity from vaccines and previous infections," Gordillo continued. "However, that immunity is starting to wane and sub variants are more transmissible. We are seeing people previously infected in December getting infected again."
Right now, 200 new cases per day are being recorded in Sarasota-Manatee, as opposed to only 30 cases per day just six weeks ago.
Notably, Gordillo adds, the state and CDC case data is an underestimation of the number of cases actually circulating in town, because home test results are not included in those numbers.
Will BA.4 and BA.5 be the dominating variants soon? Early evidence suggests that both will outcompete "stealth Omicron" and will be better at evading prior immunity. Vaccinated people appear better protected against reinfection; however, protection from vaccines on the market does wane over time against Omicron.
This is why experts like Gordillo recommend getting a booster shot. Gordillo also recommends testing yourself for Covid-19 if you have symptoms and ordering free home tests from covid.gov so you have a supply if needed.
"If you symptoms suggestive of Covid, don't assume it's just a cold or allergies," Gordillo says. "Test yourself. If your swab is negative, test again in two days. If you end up positive, isolate for five days and then wear a mask in public on days six through 10."
Gordillo also finding pharmacies and state-run facilities that have the oral antiviral drug Paxlovid. Sarasota Memorial Hospital has created a an online coalition to help residents find these locations, as well as provide other Covid resources.
The big question: will BA.4 and BA.5 prove to be more dangerous than previous strains?
Probably not. While the World Health Organization has named both subvariants "variants of concern," cases have been milder than previous iterations of Omicron and Delta, the former variant of prominence.
We'll keep you posted on new information as we receive it.