Once again, the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations due to the virus is increasing, thanks in large part to two variants that are among the most infectious yet.
BA.4 and BA.5 are subvariants of the Omicron strain of COVID. Dr. Fred Campbell, doctor of internal medicine and associate professor of medicine at the Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio, spoke to Texas Standard about their symptoms and infectiousness. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: What do we know about the infectiousness and severity of the variants currently driving COVID cases upward in Texas?
Dr. Fred Campbell: Well, I sympathize with the Texans that are having to keep up with this alphabet soup of Omicron subvariants like BA.4 and BA.5. They are very infectious, but fortunately are no more likely to make Texans hospitalized or die from COVID. So for people who are up-to-date on vaccines, there should be relatively mild illnesses associated with these variants.
My sense of it is – and this is somewhat anecdotal – that people aren’t getting the vaccine boosters that they should. Could you say something more about what sort of boost the immune system needs from those boosters and, in fact, what it might get from going through a case of COVID-19?
Well, let’s first speak to vaccination. People who are up-to-date on their vaccinations are quite safe, and the vaccines have been very effective. The boosters in particular have continued to keep the immune status of most Texans at a point where they don’t have to worry about death or serious illness. At the same time, infection, which is happening more and more to people who are vulnerable and unvaccinated, can protect against infection for several months. But that is not a good substitute for vaccination. People are putting themselves at higher risk, and I don’t like the idea of any more unnecessary deaths from COVID infections.
Many people in this latest wave have been infected with COVID for a second time. Are there specific health risks to be aware of when it comes to reinfection?
Well, we do know that reinfection, just like initial infection, can provide some degree of immunity for several months. But the idea of not becoming up-to-date on vaccination and being vulnerable to reinfection is very, very dangerous. So I would not rely upon being infected and immune after infection as a substitute for good vaccination. It is a life-threatening situation.
Can symptoms be more severe if you are infected by one of these new variants if you’ve been infected in the past?
It doesn’t appear that these variants are any more virulent – in other words, dangerous – for people who are either previously infected or people who are up-to-date on immunity by vaccination. So they’re highly contagious, highly infectious, but not more deadly than the previous subvariants.
A lot of folks have become laxer with things like mask-wearing, especially since the vaccine has become available. Are there particular practices we should get back in the habit of to prevent further spread, or has that period sort of come and gone?
Well, that’s a great question. Unfortunately, there are many counties in Texas and across the country that are at high risk because of the number of infections and also the number of hospitalizations, and deaths. The CDC website, for instance, can help with determining whether you’re living in a high-risk Texas county. But in situations where a county is designated as high-risk: masking indoors, particularly in stores, events, churches, etc. is still a very, very important way of minimizing the infection of high-risk individuals.