MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (08/02/2022) — Cases of COVID-19 are climbing again in the United States. The BA.5 omicron variant is behind the majority of new cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Virologists are also closely watching the BA.2.75 variant.

University of Minnesota Medical School and M Health Fairview expert Susan Kline, MD, MPH, discusses these subvariants.

0:40 — What do we know about the new variants? Are the symptoms different?

Dr. Kline: Symptoms are not much different. We are still seeing patients with fevers, chills, fatigue, cough and sore throat. Some patients develop shortness of breath and possibly loss of taste and smell. We are not seeing as many severely ill patients requiring hospitalization or ICU admissions. 

0:33 — How do vaccines and boosters hold up against the new variants?

Dr. Kline: Boosters are not holding up as well against the Omicron version of the virus, especially the BA.5 variant, which is dominant in the U.S. at this time. The virus has changed to the point where the mutations confer  some increased resistance to the immunity from previous vaccines and even previous infection. It is still better to be vaccinated and boosted than to have no vaccines and no immunity. 

0:41  — How can people mitigate risk when running errands, visiting friends, and attending large public events?

Dr. Kline: Get vaccinated if you have not been or get boosted if you are in a higher risk group for which boosters are recommended. Talk with your doctor if you have any questions. Also, consider wearing a mask in crowded indoor spaces, especially in areas with high rates of ongoing community transmission. If you are an immunocompromised patient, you may qualify to get the preventive monoclonal antibody called Evusheld. Ask your doctor if you fit the recommended criteria. Get tested prior to travel or visit high risk friends or family members, to help protect others.

2:07 — How has this virus changed since March of 2020 

Dr. Kline: We are still seeing new versions of the virus emerge. Right now, Omicron BA.5 is the most prominent COVID-19 strain in the U.S. It’s estimated to be causing about 80% of the COVID-19 infections right now in our country. Additionally, there’s another even newer variant being reported called BA.2.75. It also seems to have more ability to evade immunity from vaccines and prior infection, and has been emerging recently in India. This latest variant strain has been detected in several distant states in India and appears to be spreading faster than other variants in that country. As of July 20, there have been some of these BA.2.75 subvariants reported in the U.S. As of last week, seven U.S. states have reported one or more cases of the BA.2.75 subvariant. The concerning thing about these newer subvariants and variants, the Omicron family, is they seem to be more adept at evading this prior immunity that people have from previous vaccines and infections. At this time, it’s still unclear if this latest variant, 2.75, will compete and become the dominant strain over BA.5. I think more time will tell. Also, we don’t know if the newest variant will cause more severe disease or not. We will have to wait and learn more about it as these cases present themselves.

0:57 — Is COVID-19 still a public health concern more than two years later?

Dr. Kline: COVID-19 is still a significant public health concern. Many people are still getting infected even after vaccination and booster doses, such as we just saw with President Biden getting infected with COVID-19. High risk people, which includes the elderly and those with chronic underlying health conditions, are still at risk of severe disease and even death due to COVID-19. There is still a high number of daily infections, and weekly COVID cases in the U.S, have been increasing. We are still seeing higher activity than we have at some recent previous lower activity points in the pandemic, such as March and April of this year. We are now seeing increased rates. 

Susan Kline, MD, MPH is a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School. She is also the hospital epidemiologist for the M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center. 

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