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Forget ‘stealth omicron.’ Here’s the latest subvariant causing most COVID-19 cases

SHARE Forget ‘stealth omicron.’ Here’s the latest subvariant causing most COVID-19 cases
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Megan Clay tests Joni Alvino for COVID-19 in West Valley City on Wednesday, July 6, 2022. More than half of Utah’s COVID-19 cases are the omicron subvariant known as BA.5.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

There’s yet another version of COVID-19 now dominating cases in Utah and the United States.

The omicron subvariant known as BA.5 now accounts for almost 54% of the country’s COVID-19 cases, according to the latest estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through the week ending July 2. For the region that includes Utah, BA.5 makes up just over 50% of cases.

So far, a total of 792 cases of BA.5 have been identified in Utah, said Kelly Oakeson, the Utah Department of Health and Human Services’ chief scientist for next generation sequencing and bioinformatics, through the state’s genome sequencing of COVID-19 tests and wastewater samples, a process that takes about 10 days.

“We’re seeing that same trend that the nation is seeing, and the region,” Oakeson said, adding he and other scientists are already on the lookout for another version of omicron that’s labeled BA.2.75, also called centaurus, “that seems to be even worse” as it sweeps through India.

It’s all part of what he described as a “roller-coaster pattern” of COVID-19 cases rising and falling.

“The virus is not done with us, even though a lot of people seem to be done with the virus,” he said. “That doesn’t mean the virus is going to go away. The virus is still here. It’s still infecting a lot of people. It’s still causing a lot of illness. And it’s still evolving to get even better and better at escaping our immune systems and our vaccinations.”

The subvariant is believed to be even more transmissible than so-called “stealth omicron,” labeled BA.2 by scientists, that followed last winter’s omicron variant. It was the original omicron that drove COVID-19 infections to record-breaking levels in Utah early this year.

BA.5, along with another subvariant known as BA.4 that does not appear to be spreading as rapidly, can evade some of the antibodies produced by COVID-19 vaccinations and infections, including from earlier versions of omicron, according to The New York Times.

That means the now dominant strain may be more readily caught by people who are fully vaccinated and boosted, or who have been infected even recently. This spring, BA.4 and BA.5 sparked a COVID-19 surge in South Africa even though 98% of the population was believed to have antibodies, the Times reported.

The severity of illness from BA.5 — and from BA.4, which has turned up 341 times in the state’s genome sequencing — seems to be similar to other versions of omicron, which weren’t as bad as from the delta variant that turned Utah and the Mountain West into the nation’s COVID-19 hot spot last fall, Oakeson said.

“Of course, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t, that it 100% is going to be just like a mild cold. That’s not true. You still can get pretty miserably sick with this. So if you don’t like being sick, get boosted and wear a mask when you’re in crowded places,” he said.

COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots remain “very, very good” at preventing people from becoming severely ill, Oakeson said. He said there are also “multiple layers of defense” when it comes to the virus, including masking and social distancing that “can keep the impact to our society and to our loved ones and to ourselves minimal.”

In Utah, coronavirus cases continue to climb along with hospitalizations. As of June 30, the most recent data reported by the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, the seven-day average case count was 1,058, more than a 9% increase from the previous week, while hospitalizations jumped nearly 16%.

Four counties in Utah — Salt Lake, Summit, Tooele and San Juan — are at high community levels of COVID-19, where universal masking is recommended by the federal government, according to the CDC’s calculations of case counts as well as hospital admissions and capacity by county.

Just over 45% of the nation’s counties are currently at low community levels for the virus, and more than 35%, at medium levels, where those considered at higher risk for severe illness are advised to wear masks and take other precautions. Less than 20% are at high levels.

When it comes to the CDC’s measurement of transmission levels of the virus. However, more than 85% of the country, including most of Utah, is at a high level. The CDC uses a lower threshold of case counts along with the percent of positive tests to determine transmission levels.

Public testing for the virus has dropped off nationwide, with many people no longer checking to see if they have the virus or relying on results from home test kits that are not required to be reported, The New York Times noted, suggesting that’s created ”a foggier look at the state of virus across the country.”

In Utah, most COVID-19 testing was turned over to private providers by the end of March, as part of Gov. Spencer Cox’s “steady state” plan to treat the virus like the flu or other endemic diseases. The state health department, now merged with human services, also began updating Utah’s COVID-19 numbers weekly rather than daily.