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The BA.5 subvariant is driving up cases and hospitalizations across the US, with health officials warning the actual number is likely much higher due to at-home testing. "We are at a point in the pandemic where most COVID-19 deaths are preventable," said White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha at a White House press briefing. "Our strategy to manage BA.5 relies on making sure Americans continue to have easy and convenient access to these tools. We're going to continue mobilizing the entire federal government, working with state and local leaders, healthcare providers, organizations, employers, community-based organizations, and others to do this. We're also going to communicate clearly about common sense steps Americans can take to protect themselves to that end." Here are five things virus experts want you to know about BA.5. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.
Vaccines Save Lives
Virus experts are reminding people that vaccination is still the best way to protect against COVID-19 and subsequent variants such as BA.5. "Vaccines remain our single most important tool to protect people against serious illness, hospitalizations, and death," says Dr. Jha. "And staying up to date is essential as we see BA.5 rise across the country. We encourage all Americans to get vaccinated if they haven't already. Americans age five and above should get their first booster shot within five months after their initial vaccination. And if you haven't, don't delay, do it now, getting vaccinated now will not preclude you from getting a variant-specific vaccine later in this fall or winter. And for people who are 50 years of age or older, my message is simple: If you have not gotten a vaccine shot in the year 2022, if you have not gotten one this year, please go get another vaccine shot. You are eligible for your first booster or second booster wherever you are in your vaccination schedule. If you've not gotten a vaccine shot this year, go get one. Now it could save your life."
Treatment Is Available
"We have highly effective treatments that work against BA.5, including Paxlovid," says Dr. Jha. "This is an oral antiviral that reduces the risk of hospitalizations and death by 90%. We have worked very hard to acquire more of these pills than any other country in the world. And we've moved quickly to make these treatments widely available, at more than 41,000 locations across the country. And we've built up a large network of test-to-treat sites. Let me talk about test-to-treat. These sites are great. People can walk in, they can get tested. If they're positive, they can speak with a medical provider. And if they're eligible, they can get a prescription and have that prescription filled all in one convenient stop. And if you test positive in the days and weeks ahead, please consult your healthcare provider about your eligibility for treatments, or please visit COVID.gov to find a test-to-treat location where you can get tested and treated all in one place."
Wear A Mask Indoors
"There is broad consensus in the scientific community that wearing a high quality mask in indoor public spaces is an important tool to control the spread of COVID-19," says Dr. Jha. "It prevents you from getting infected and it prevents you from spreading it to others. We have made high-quality masks widely available, and the CDC has developed COVID-19 community levels, which include clear recommendations on when individuals should consider masking in indoor public spaces."
Use Air Purifiers
"I want to take a minute to talk about ventilation," says Dr. Jha. "We know that improving indoor air quality by improving ventilation, putting in indoor air purifiers, they can make an enormous difference in reducing infections to spread. So if you are a business or a school or any kind of institution that brings people together indoors, please work to improve the quality of that indoor air."
Don't Underestimate BA.5
"We are closely monitoring BA.5 in its impact," says Dr. Jha. "We're encouraged that serious illness, hospitalizations, and deaths have remained relatively low based on the level of infections. That's not by coincidence, by the way—it's not random. It's in large part due to our successful vaccination program, our efforts to get people boosted, and our incredibly focused effort on making sure that treatments and testing are widely available. But let me make another really important point: We are experiencing about 300 to 350 deaths a day. That is unacceptable. It's too high, and we will continue to use the infrastructure we have built and the tools we have to lower suffering and death as we manage BA.5. And it is clear that with every American doing their part, we can get through the BA.5 infections together."
Vaccine Immunity Wanes
"Immunity wanes, whether that's immunity following infection, or immunity following vaccine, even though the immediate protection following infection or vaccine is generally good protection," says Dr. Anthony Fauci. "There is good data now that if you were infected with BA.1, you really don't have a lot of good protection against BA.4 and BA.5. And in other countries particularly that have BA.4 antedating ours, the reinfection rate is clear that that's the case. But the overall principle is that we know immunity wanes with Coronaviruses, whether that is natural infection or vaccination. So if you've been infected or vaccinated and your time comes for a boost, that's when you should go and get the boost. And I might say myself, having been someone who's been vaccinated and infected, when we get the next round of having vaccines available, months later, I will be in line to get another boost after that."
How to Stay Safe Out There
Follow the public health fundamentals and help end this pandemic, no matter where you live—get vaccinated or boosted ASAP; if you live in an area with low vaccination rates, wear an N95 face mask, don't travel, social distance, avoid large crowds, don't go indoors with people you're not sheltering with (especially in bars), practice good hand hygiene, and to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.