Austin Public Health has found two new COVID-19 omicron variants in Travis County. As of Friday, the two variants — known as BA.4 and BA.5 — combined to make up about 6% of the COVID-19 infections in the United States.
Most of the COVID-19 infections in Travis County and the United States are still the BA.2 or stealth omicron, a subvariant of the original omicron of last winter.
COVID cases in Travis County also have been rising. As of Friday, Austin Public Health reported a transmission rate of 174.81 cases for every 100,000 people. If that number gets to 200, Travis County will move from low community spread to medium community spread on the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions’ metric.
“These rising numbers and new subvariants are very concerning, especially at a time when many will be traveling and gathering with loved ones,” Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County Health Authority, said on Friday.
What are the BA.4 and BA.5 variants?
The BA.4 and BA.5 omicron variants have caused a rise in cases this spring in Europe and South Africa.
They seem to be more transmissible than the original omicron, which was more transmissible than Delta, which was more transmissible than Alpha and Beta, which was more transmissible than the original COVID-19 of spring 2020.
The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention also notes that these new subvariants of omicron also seem to evade natural immunity in people who got the original omicron, but the subvariants do not seem to cause more severe infection. The ECDC expects these subvariants to become the dominate strains in Europe in coming months.
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What does it mean to go from low to medium community spread?
The CDC updates community spread levels every week. In Centeal Texas, Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Burnet counties are still in the low level. Caldwell County is now in the medium level.
Here are what the levels mean for you:
For people up-to-date with their COVID-19 vaccines:
Low: Taking precautions is optional when gathering, dining and shopping.
Medium: Precautions are optional when gathering, dining and shopping. But wear a mask when social distancing is not possible.
High: Use precautions when gathering, dining and shopping.
For people who are at higher risk:
Low: Precautions are optional when gathering, dining and shopping.
Medium: Use precautions when gathering, dining and shopping.
High: Use precautions when gathering, dining and shopping.
Precautions mean wearing a mask, social distancing and avoiding crowded situations.
Travis County has seen its transmission rates steadily increasing since March 16, when it was at a low of 30.2 cases per 100,000 people. On May 12, that number had risen to 118 cases per 100,000. As May 26, it was at 169.9 cases.
The good thing about the stealth omicron: Our hospitalizations have remained manageable. Currently new admissions for people with COVID-19 is 14, with 45 people hospitalized, nine in the ICU and one person on a ventilator.
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Why is the community spread changing?
More people are gathering again. Think about all the graduations and end-of-school celebrations, plus Memorial Day and other summer events beginning to happen. Fewer people are wearing masks in public spaces.
Each variant also has been more transmissible, according to health care experts.
What can we do to control the spread?
“We need everyone to get vaccinated and boosted, especially children who are now eligible for boosters,” Walkes said. “Masks also provide an extra layer of protection for yourself and others.”
Everyone 5 and older is eligible to get vaccinated and eligible for a booster five months after their original series (two doses for mRNA vaccines for most people, three doses for immune compromised people). Adults 50 and older can get a second booster four months after their first booster.
We have to keep up with vaccination, said Dr. Donald Murphey, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, because “COVID, it’s not just a single wave. There’s not long-lasting immunity, and the virus is changing. It really is an especially difficult virus. There’s more to come.”
Vaccinations can help prevent severe disease and death, experts say. That’s really the goal of the vaccines: preventing hospitalizations and death, while keeping our hospitals available to non-COVID-19 patients.
“It happens with the flu vaccine,” Murphey said. “It may not prevent you from getting the flu, but it does prevent hospitalizations and death.”
It is never too late to start vaccinations or to get back on the vaccination schedule.
Most pharmacies have plenty of COVID-19 vaccines available. Austin Public Health has its walk-up site at Old Sims Elementary Gymnasium, 1203 Springdale Road, 2-7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays. COVID-19 vaccinations are free.
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Should I wear a mask?
The CDC guidelines suggest you to assess your own risk factors such as other health concerns you might have, who is in your life and their health concerns, and the community spread levels.
Right now in low levels, precautions such as masking are optional. If we move to medium level, then masks will be encouraged in public spaces and strongly recommended when social distancing is not possible.
You can get free N95 masks at most local pharmacies or go to cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/free-masks.html to find out where you can get masks.
Should I test?
If you’re not feeling well, even if you think it’s allergies, go ahead and take a self test. You can get free tests, even if you’ve already received a set of free ones, through the federal government. Austin Public Health also gives them out at the Metz Elementary testing site.
If you’ve been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, you need to isolate for five days and test again to make sure you are negative on the fifth day. If you have a positive test, quarantine for five days and then test negative.
When will kids 4 and younger get their vaccine?
It’s coming soon. The FDA is expected to meet about both the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccines for younger children June 14-15. Then the CDC’s committee will meet.
If approved by both the FDA and the CDC, those vaccines will cover everyone 6 months and older. Newborns can get some immunity from their mothers being vaccinated while pregnant.