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KBIA’s Health & Wealth Desk covers the economy and health of rural and underserved communities in Missouri and beyond. The team produces a weekly radio segment, as well as in-depth features and regular blog posts. The reporting desk is funded by a grant from the University of Missouri, and the Missouri Foundation for Health.Contact the Health & Wealth desk.

What you need to know about the now dominant BA.5 Omicron subvariant

Laura Morris, MD, Family and Community Medicine.
Justin Kelley/University of Missouri Health Ca
Laura Morris, MD, Family and Community Medicine.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the BA.5 Omicron subvariant now accounts for the vast majority of cases in the United States, and the CDC also blames the strain for the upward trend in cases across the country.

KBIA’S Rebecca Smith sat down with Dr. Laura Morris, the co-chair of MU Health Care’s COVID-19 vaccine committee and a rural family physician, to talk about how this subvariant is presenting differently and what people can do to protect themselves.

"So, that headache is probably the warning shot that most people see and experience first."
Dr. Laura Morris

Rebecca Smith: How exactly is this variant different when it comes to how infectious it is, and how effective our current vaccines are against it?

Dr. Laura Morris: BA.5 is different, but it is not quite as much different from the Omicron strains that really went through the community over the winter – in that January February time period.

So, it is able to escape and evade those neutralizing antibodies that folks have – who maybe had that from exposure to the virus from an Omicron infection or even an earlier infection, like a Delta infection, and definitely quite a bit different from the antibodies from vaccination.

Those antibodies are not useless, okay? They are definitely still helping folks from getting seriously ill and helping to keep folks out of the hospital – reducing death rates.

But it is certainly not nearly as effective when we look at this virus and how our immune system can react compared to the earlier versions that looked more similar to where our vaccinated immunity came from.

Smith: Yeah. So, what kind of differences have you guys seen when it comes to symptoms that people are presenting?

"There's also growing evidence that reinfection increases the risk of long haul COVID symptoms –ranging from fatigue, shortness of breath and other respiratory symptoms, chronic headaches, brain fog."
Dr. Laura Morris

Morris: So, from a symptom standpoint, we are seeing more patients present with things like headache, and headaches seems to be one of the most consistent symptoms.

That sometimes even more precede any kind of respiratory symptoms. So, anything like a sore throat or congestion or cough.

Pretty consistent with the earlier Omicron viral symptoms, we're seeing more upper respiratory symptoms in patients and fewer patients with pneumonia or respiratory failure – the really sick, sick significant lung symptoms that we saw in patients in the original strains of coronavirus or with Delta infections.

So, that headache is probably the warning shot that most people see and experience first.

Smith: Is there anything you feel like I've missed about BA.5 that you wish the community knew or was paying attention to?

Morris: Throughout this pandemic, we have tended to talk about mild illness, and then we have categorized illness as “severe” if people are in the hospital.

And I think we need to look at a little bit more closely our designation of what is “mild” because mild is not always mild.

So, just because a person's not hospitalized doesn't mean that they're not pretty significantly ill – there's a lot of impact on productivity.

There's also growing evidence that reinfection increases the risk of long haul COVID symptoms ranging from fatigue, shortness of breath and other respiratory symptoms, chronic headaches, brain fog.

And they seem to be at risk for developing other chronic medical conditions – heart conditions, lung conditions and other things.

We don't know nearly enough about that to give it proper numbers and to designate exactly what risk there is, but the accumulating evidence is that reinfection is not without adding on to the risk of some of those serious and long-term consequences.

So, even if vaccinated – even if you've had a relatively mild experience and recovered – reinfection is still worth avoiding.

Smith: Anything else to add?

Morris: I think it's most important for folks who are eligible for a vaccine booster right now to go ahead and go get it go get the booster that's available to at the pharmacy or at your doctor's office today – particularly if you are a high-risk person, someone who's older or who has immunocompromising conditions.

Because waiting for that Omicron-specific booster to come out in the fall, it's going to be several months, and you are certainly at risk right now, and getting a booster with what's available to you right now is better than waiting four or five months for the booster that might be coming.

And in fact, likely most of us will be getting another booster with that Omicron-specific version of the vaccine over the winter, either way. So, don’t wait. Go get your booster right now.

Rebecca Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth Desk. Born and raised outside of Rolla, Missouri, she has a passion for diving into often overlooked issues that affect the rural populations of her state – especially stories that broaden people’s perception of “rural” life.
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