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Whether it’s a friend who previously managed to avoid getting the virus or a family member surprised and upset to find themselves re-infected, you probably know someone who has been impacted by COVID-19.  

That said, you still have reason to be concerned as a new strain of the coronavirus, BA.5, has emerged and currently makes up more than 50% of all COVID cases in the U.S., according to the CDC

In fact, health officials report that the highly-transmittable variant accounts for the latest surge in cases. 

During the last two weeks, DC Health data has identified just under 200 new cases per 100,000 District residents – a number which barely meets the threshold to remain classified as “low” community spread. But experts add a caveat with the belief that the official data severely underestimates infections because so many at-home test results fail to be reported. 

“We are undercounting for sure – the number of cases in the community is definitely higher than the data that can be accumulated,” former DC Public Health Commissioner Dr. Reed Tuckson said.

CDC data showing the prevalence of different COVID-19 variants shows BA.5 and its close cousin BA.4, rapidly overtaking other strains of the virus. (Courtesy of Centers for Disease Control)
CDC data showing the prevalence of different COVID-19 variants shows BA.5 and its close cousin BA.4, rapidly overtaking other strains of the virus. (Courtesy of Centers for Disease Control)

Tuckson, who co-founded the Black Coalition Against COVID, said he expects to see cases rise in the coming weeks, though they are unlikely to reach the staggering levels of last winter’s surge. 

BA.5 represents an offshoot of the Omicron variant and like the rest of the Omicron family, it’s extremely contagious. It also appears to have the ability to outsmart the antibodies which normally prevent infection.

“The BA.5 strain is able to evade your immune defenses that have been made from previous infections,” Tuckson explained.

In other words, even if you’ve already had COVID-19, the level of protection you now have may not be enough to keep you from getting it again. BA.5 has mutated to the extent that antibodies created to fight earlier infections don’t quickly recognize the new strain as a threat. The same concept applies to antibodies developed in response to the vaccine. However, being vaccinated still minimizes the worst effects of the virus.

“The good news is that, at this point in time, we are not seeing nearly the severity of illness that we have seen with other strains,” Tuckson said. “However, what we are beginning to notice is that hospitalizations are going up around the country – not as dramatically as before, but they’re increasing.” 

DC’s COVID data site shows medium-to-low rates of hospitalizations over the last several weeks. High vaccination rates help keep hospitalizations and deaths low. And District health officials estimate that 77% of D.C. residents have completed their “primary series” – either two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

But based on an estimate reported by The New York Times, only a little over 30% of District residents have received their booster shots. 

“The people who are having more serious issues like hospitalization may very well be people whose immunity from vaccines is waning over time,” Tuckson said. “You really do want to make sure that you go ahead and get your booster now to give yourself the maximum chance be protected from severe illness or death with these new strains.” 

Tuckson recommends masking up indoors with strangers and avoiding crowds as much as possible. He also suggested people maintain a relationship with their physician so that antiviral medication can be prescribed quickly if needed. 

Above all, Tuckson emphasized the importance of residents being vaccinated including children below the age of five who became eligible to receive the vaccine in mid-June. 

Looking to the future, researchers continue to work on a vaccine that will specially target Omicron variants but say they do not expect it to be available before the fall. 

“When it came to vaccinating the African-American community against COVID, after a slow and difficult start, we caught up,” Tuckson said. “And there are no disparities in the vaccination rates now between whites and Blacks for the primary series.”

“How did we reach that point? Because the Black church, Black social organizations, Black health experts and the Black Press came together to educate our community and to fight for our lives,” Tuckson said.

Kayla Benjamin photo

Kayla Benjamin

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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