Jul 18, 2022 - News

Omicron BA.5 in Washington — what you need to know

Illustration of a covid particle made out of the letter Omicron.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The BA.5 subvariant of Omicron is now the dominant strain of the coronavirus in the U.S. — and a new study shows it's far more resistant to vaccines than its predecessors.

Why it matters: COVID-19 case counts are rising, both in Washington state and across the country.

  • Public health officials say the infectiousness of the new subvariant makes it more important than ever for people to get vaccinated and boosted.

Driving the news: On Friday, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha told NBC's Andrea Mitchell that the BA.5 subvariant is the "most contagious, certainly the most immune evasive variant we've seen."

  • The new study — published this month in the journal Nature — found that BA.5 is four times as resistant to vaccines as previous strains.

What they're saying: In King County, average daily COVID-19 infections are higher now than at the peak of the 2021 Delta wave, in large part because of the new subvariant, county health officer Jeff Duchin told reporters Thursday.

  • Hospitalizations have increased threefold since April, Duchin added.

Yes, but: Reported infections remain lower than at the peak of the Omicron surge in January (although officials say many positive cases are not currently being reported, due to home testing).

  • Hospitalizations and deaths are also below where they were earlier in the pandemic.

State of play: Vaccination offers significant protection against the new subvariant, Duchin said, and is the main reason the current surge isn't causing as many hospitalizations or deaths as past waves.

  • Even if you previously contracted COVID-19, avoiding future infections is important for preventing long-term health issues, such as the development of long COVID, Duchin said.
  • Health officials are asking residents to consider wearing KN95 or N95 face masks in public indoor spaces, although no new mandates are imminent, per Duchin.

Between the lines: Beyond masking, there are other steps health officials say people can take to protect themselves:

  • Everyone over age 5 should get a booster after completing their main vaccination series, according to the state Department of Health.
  • People 50 and older and those who are younger and immunocompromised should also get a second booster, per the health department.
  • Avoiding crowded indoor spaces is a good idea. But if you must be indoors, you should try to improve ventilation, such as by opening windows, health officials said.
  • Keeping a supply of COVID-19 tests at home is critical so you can test yourself if you feel symptomatic or have been exposed to the virus — and quarantine if necessary.

Be smart: Free tests are available to Washingtonians by visiting SayYesCOVIDHomeTest.org or covidtests.gov.

  • Tests are also available for purchase at local pharmacies and online.
  • For help scheduling a vaccine or booster, use the online Vaccine Locator or call the state’s vaccine hotline at 1-833-VAX-HELP.
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