There’s something different about the version of COVID-19 that is responsible for a climb in cases and hospitalizations in Utah and the rest of the country.

BA.5 is unique in the fact it’s what we call immune evasive,” Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare, recently told reporters during a virtual news conference on the virus’ continued spread in Utah.

That means the immune response people get from being vaccinated and boosted, or from previous COVID-19 infections, “aren’t nearly as protective against preventing BA.5 infection as they were with other variants. So it has the ability to get around the immune system,” the doctor said.

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The good news is that the vaccine, as well as immunity from having had the virus, remains “quite protective against severe disease,” he said, limiting hospitalizations and death. But infections keeps rising, with the state hitting the 1 million mark for recorded cases in Thursday’s weekly update from the Utah Department of Health and Human Services.

Why is BA.5, an omicron subvariant that has already swept through other parts of the world, including Europe, so pervasive? Stenehjem cited three factors:

  • Immune evasiveness. BA.5 is “plenty immune evasive.”
  • Transmissibility. “Are there viral properties that make it able to transmit more efficiently, meaning less virus to cause disease? That part, we’re still uncertain about, the difference between BA.5 and BA.2,” the so-called “stealth omicron” subvariant that emerged after last winter’s record breaking surge of the original omicron variant.
  • Preventative public health measures. Those “are certainly lacking at this point.” Gov. Spencer Cox shifted the state’s pandemic response at the end of March, treating COVID-19 like the flu or other endemic diseases, and state lawmakers limited the ability of public health agencies to impose mask mandates or other mitigation measures.

“We’ve gone through many stages in the state of Utah, and what’s been challenging with this pandemic is the rate of change of the virus, which then dictates us changing public health measures,” Stenehjem said, although at this point there are vaccines and treatments available for COVD-19.

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“So are we doing enough? In some respects we are. I’d say there are things we could be doing. In close contact areas, I would suggest the public to wear masks to prevent transmission,” he said, acknowledging that new mask mandates are unlikely.

Access to free or low-cost home and other testing for COVID-19 is also important so that people will know if they are infected, the doctor said, also calling for more awareness of the treatments available, such as the antiviral drug Paxlovid, credited with improving President Joe Biden’s symptoms after he tested positive for the virus Thursday.

When people are sick, they need to be able to stay home from work or school, Stenehjem said.

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Utahns should be concerned about getting COVID-19, he said, but Utahns also must take individual responsibility for keeping themselves and those around them safe from the virus. A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found a slight majority of Utahns aren’t worried about contracting COVID-19.

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