COVID

How to protect yourself from BA.5, according to BMC, Brigham and Women’s doctors

“We have more knowledge and we have more measures now. We know that a layered approach is how we get to the other side.” 

A new variant of COVID is spreading fast in Massachusetts. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

A new COVID-19 variant, dubbed BA.5 is now spreading both nationally and locally. It is “highly immune evasive,” White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Ashish Jha said this week, meaning that previously catching the virus does not offer as much protection against future cases of BA.5. In the last two weeks, COVID-19 infections have increased across the country by 6%, hospitalizations have risen by 17%, and deaths by 13%.

Earlier this week, a couple local experts joined GBH News to preview what may lay ahead and how residents can best protect themselves. 

Boston Medical Center Infectious Disease Physician Sabrina Assoumou said that, when a new variant appears, researchers should look to answer three questions: “Is it more transmissible, is it going to cause more severe reactions, and is it going to evade immunity?”

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BA.5 is more transmissible than previous variants, she said, which means case counts will rise. Whether or not the new variant causes more severe reactions remains to be seen, and more data must be collected. Finally, BA.5 does seem to evade vaccine immunity. A booster shot will help, Assoumou said. 

“The big picture is, it’s a concerning subvariant, but we do have measures to improve outcomes,” she said. 

Paul Sax, clinical director of Brigham and Women’s Hospital infectious disease division, pushed back on the notion that BA.5 is the worst version of COVID yet. That label should belong to the first ever version of the virus, he said, since the populace had not developed any immunity before it spread around the world. 

“The dominant effect on disease severity is how much prior immunity the population has, and our population now has lots of prior immunity from both prior infections and vaccinations. Even though case numbers are up, I want to say it’s not the same as going back to square one back in 2020,” he said. 

Sax continued to emphasize that, although hospitalizations are increasing, the severity of cases today is not at the same level as the early days of the pandemic. 

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The ability to contain this new wave could be hampered by the fact that many public health measures, such as mask mandates, have been relaxed. 

“Unfortunately… this has been going on for a few years now and people are tired of having to undergo certain requirements,” Assoumou said. “We have more knowledge and we have more measures now. We know that a layered approach is how we get to the other side.” 

Assoumou emphasized that many Massachusetts residents who are eligible to get a vaccine booster have not yet. Eligibility information can be found on the state’s website.  

State officials recently announced that COVID data would be reported weekly, instead of the five-day-a-week reporting schedule used previously. In a statement, State Epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Brown said that the decision was an effort to “focus on the metrics most useful at a given time.”

Not all professionals share the sentiment. 

“As a time when we have a subvariant that we know is more transmissible and more immune evasive, I would have personally liked to have had access to more data,” Assoumou told GBH News.  

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Another wrinkle to consider is long COVID. Last month, federal data showed that nearly one in five people who had caught COVID in the past are currently experiencing long COVID symptoms.

Investigators from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital last week announced that they had discovered a potential biomarker for long COVID in blood samples, which could help inform the diagnosis and treatment of the condition. 

Sax told GBH news that one of the main hurdles people with long COVID symptoms face is the fact that there’s no test to definitively prove that they have long COVID. 

“[Researchers] found evidence of the spike protein in people with long COVID, and what that shows is either the actual virus is still present, or remnants of the virus are still present,” Sax said. “That leads to the question of ‘is that remnant or virus causing long COVID,’ and if it is, looking at ways to eradicate it will be very important.”

Many in the medical community are wondering if antiviral therapy could help combat long COVID. Sax said this should be urgently studied. 

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