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How worried should I be about BA.5, on a scale of 1 to 10? We asked 4 leading COVID experts for their rating

Tyler Le/Insider

  • The BA.5 subvariant of Omicron is reinfecting people at a record clip, causing alarm.
  • We asked public health experts how concerned you should be about it, on a scale of 1 to 10.
  • Their answers ranged depending on who and where you are, but if you’re up to date on shots and know where to get treatment, there’s no need to be off-the-charts panicked. 

There’s a new coronavirus variant traveling around this summer at a record clip.

It’s a variant of Omicron, called BA.5, and it is causing a stir largely because it has evolved even further away than other Omicrons did from the coronavirus we already knew. 

Previously, getting infected with Omicron meant you probably had some protection against reinfection for a few months, at least. But now BA.5 is strategically evading our built-up defenses against prior versions of the virus. This all means that reinfections – even in vaccinated and recently infected people – are up. Way up.

So, yes, BA.5 is easier to catch than other variants have been, and it may feel like it is lurking everywhere right now, infecting anyone, whether or not you’ve already had a vaccine, a booster shot, and/or a recent bout of COVID.

“If you were infected with BA.1, you really don’t have a lot of good protection against BA.4/5,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US’s top infectious disease expert, said on Tuesday. 

We asked four top public health experts to help us figure out how worried we should be about this new, extra-stealthy Omicron subvariant. 

Telling us how concerned to be about new infectious disease threats is typically what these people do for a living. But rating BA.5 gave them some pause. 

“I can’t answer that,” infectious disease expert Dr. Celine Gounder, editor at large for Public Health at Kaiser Health News, said. “Because it depends on your vaccination status, your age, your health, your occupation, your living situation, etc, etc.”

Others did give hard numbers, but there was variation in their answers based on where you may live, or who you are. 

If you’re up to date on vaccines, one expert said your worry scale should register at ‘3 out of 10’

Dr. Preeti Malani, an infectious disease physician at the University of Michigan, was willing to give a hard and fast number: “I’d say 3 out of 10,” she said, expressing mild concern about the new variant. 

“BA.5 is everywhere and if you haven’t gotten it yet, the odds are pretty [good] that you will,” she reasoned. “But, if you are up to date on vaccines, the illness should be mild and without major medical consequences.”

While there is a “high risk of exposure” to this variant, she said there are also “lots of reasons to be hopeful.” Early treatment with Paxlovid is now free for all Americans who may need it. 

“With home testing and rapid connection to treatment (for those at risk of complicated infection), COVID is manageable,” Malani said.

Older adults without booster shots should be more worried 

In the UK, which is at least a few weeks ahead of the US in terms of variant spread, national health security experts have assessed that the protection offered by current vaccines against BA.5 “likely remains comparable to that observed previously,” meaning that vaccinated and boosted people, while certainly at risk of getting sick with BA.5, won’t likely end up in the hospital, or dead. 

However, for those who aren’t up to date on shots, and who don’t have a COVID action plan at the ready, outcomes could be bad. The European Union earlier this week dispatched fresh recommendations for a second booster for all adults 60 years old and up, in line with what the US already recommends. 

“We are currently seeing increasing COVID-19 case notification rates and an increasing trend in hospital and ICU admissions and occupancy in several countries, mainly driven by the BA.5 sublineage of Omicron,” Dr. Andrea Ammon, the Director of European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, said. 

“There are still too many individuals at risk of severe COVID-19 infection whom we need to protect as soon as possible.” 

Regional differences in vaccine rates and heat waves may complicate the calculation

Miami, Florida

Sylvain Sonnet/Getty Images

Public health expert Katelyn Jetelina, who runs the popular ‘Your Local Epidemiologist’ blog wasn’t willing to give a single number out for the entire nation. She said risk is too variable right now, based on where you live.

“I’m quite worried about the South,” she said, ranking it a 7 out of 10 due to low rates of booster shots, low Paxlovid usage, low testing, and “everyone going inside for the heat.”

The south also had a relatively low number of infections in the earlier BA.2.12.1 wave, unlike the Northeast, where Jetelina said people should be at about a 4 out of 10 level of concern.

Bottom line: if you’re boosted, wearing masks when appropriate, and have a test and treatment action plan for if you do get sick, most experts agree this wave should be alright.

But like all risk calculations, “the number is different based on who it is being applied to,” as Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security pointed out. 

“If it is a fresh lung transplant patient, the number would be 10. For a healthy 18 year old, it would be 0,” he ventured.

“Risk is not one-sized fits all.”

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