The new BA. 5 COVID-19 variant has quickly become the most prominent strain in the U.S., accounting for almost 86 percent of cases, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The BA. 5 omicron subvariant, first detected in South Africa, now dominates COVID-19 cases in every region of the country after initially spiking in the U.S. in June. BA.5 made up 85.5 percent of cases for the week ending on July 30, the CDC notes.
BA.5 infections are associated with many familiar symptoms, notably a lingering cough, nasal congestion and sore throat.
A prominent symptom, especially in younger populations, is extreme fatigue. This fatigue, which can often leave the patient feeling as though they can’t get out of bed or climb a flight of stairs, lasts as long as two weeks, said Dr. Sergio Segarra, chief medical officer at Baptist Hospital in Miami.
Loss of taste or smell, previously tell-tale symptoms of a COVID infection, have become less prevalent with the newer variants.
Reports from current infections have echoed early reports from South Africa which suggested that many patients experienced “severe fatigue, but no loss of taste or smell,” said Dr. Lauren Ferrante, a Yale Medicine pulmonologist.
In the pediatric population, cases also tend to present with gastrointestinal symptoms.
Health care workers are seeing fewer hospitalizations with BA.5, and fewer cases involving severe lung damage and reactive pneumonia as the disease mutates.
“In general, this BA.5 is milder,” Segarra said.
The BA.5 variant has demonstrated an unmatched ability to infect those who are vaccinated or who have immunity from previous infections, however.
“BA.5 is much more contagious than prior strains,” Segarra said. “We went from contact precautions to airborne in a relatively short period of time.”
Natural immunity from other variants, including previous omicron subvariants, is diminishing more quickly as the COVID-19 virus continues to mutate, and vaccine immunity is preferred, Segarra said.
Experts are urging the public to get booster doses until vaccines specifically developed to target BA.5 are available.
“If you’re in an eligible population, I would not wait to get that boost,” Segarra said. “That will be what could potentially keep you from dying.”