No matter how much we wish it were, the pandemic is certainly not over. COVID cases, deaths, and hospitalizations are all on the rise in the U.S., “driving COVID-19 community levels up to medium or high in 75 percent of counties,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Two new and highly evolved versions of the virus now make up around 95 percent of COVID cases in the country—Omicron subvariants BA.5 and BA.4. But it’s not just the name that’s changed: These subvariants also carry new signs of a COVID infection. Read on to find out what BA.5 symptoms officials say you need to be looking out for now.
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Just two months ago, Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 were barely a blip on the radar, as both accounted for less than 1 percent of nationwide COVID cases each during the first week of May. But the fast-spreading variants quickly worked their way around the U.S., with BA.5 growing substantially.
By the first week of July, the BA.5 subvariant had officially become the country’s dominant version of the virus, overtaking the previously dominant Omicron subvariant BA.2.12.1. As of July 23, BA.5 is estimated to account for 81.9 percent of new cases. Its sister subvariant, BA.4, is second in dominance with 12.9 percent, according to the CDC.
The emergence of a new dominant version of COVID shows that the virus is continuing to evolve rapidly. And with that, symptoms are slightly changing, too. Research from the United Kingdom has found that much like what was seen with the emergence of the original Omicron variant, the BA.5 subvariant is moving COVID cases away from the hallmark COVID symptoms seen at the beginning of the pandemic.
“The percentage of people reporting loss of taste or loss of smell remains at a low level in June 2022, after decreasing sharply between December 2021 and January 2022,” the Office for National Statistics in the UK reported. “This change coincided with increasing infections with the Omicron variants of COVID-19.”
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The BA.5 and BA.4 subvariants are causing more upper respiratory, cold, and flu-like symptoms, Allison Arwady, MD, the commissioner for Chicago’s Department of Public Health, said during a recent Facebook Live briefing, per NBC 5 Chicago. “The percentage of people testing positive who reported abdominal pain, fever, sore throat, and muscle ache have increased in June 2022 compared with May 2022,” the UK Office for National Statistics reported.
Panagis Galiatsatos, MD, a Johns Hopkins Hospital pulmonologist and critical care physician who has been treating COVID-19 patients, told The Baltimore Sun he has found that a typical BA.5 COVID case starts with a runny nose and a sore throat. At the same time, infected patients may have a fever that lasts a day or two, with headaches and sinus congestion that usually last for much longer. And a persistent cough with a lot of “gunk” has also become common with this subvariant.
As with former versions of Omicron, the BA.5 subvariant is “more likely to cause less severe illness compared to other variants,” especially among vaccinated people who get breakthrough infections, according to UC Davis Health. But this version of the virus is driving a significant surge of COVID reinfections. Sharon Welbel, MD, director of hospital epidemiology and infection control at Cook County in Chicago, told NBC 5 Chicago that reinfections with BA.5 are surfacing as soon as four weeks after a previous infection—even with previous forms of Omicron.
“All of the variants prior to this, we were not seeing a lot of reinfection with the current variant,” Arwady explained. “BA.4, BA.5 is the first one where we’re seeing some reinfection even of people that had a prior version of Omicron. So that is different.”
This heightened risk of reinfection can bring its own set of serious problems, even if the COVID infection itself isn’t severe. “People aren’t getting as sick from the virus now, which is good, but so many people are getting it and getting infected again,” Andrea Levine, MD, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, told The Baltimore Sun. “Each subsequent infection increases the likelihood of ongoing symptoms [long COVID]. If you’re resigned to getting it over and over again, it’s not a good strategy.”