Another COVID-19 variant is spreading in Tarrant County. Here’s what you need to know
COVID-19 cases are on the rise, again. For many people, getting infected now means they’ll suffer
But that’s not true for everyone. For the 42.7% of people in Tarrant County who are not fully vaccinated, and for those who are vaccinated but are older than 65, have compromised immune systems, or have certain chronic conditions, getting infected with the virus could mean serious illness or death.
And even for people who avoid serious illness, each new infection gives the virus a possibility to change its structure and become a more challenging disease to prevent.
“Every time it infects someone, there’s a chance it mutates,” said Shane Fernando, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
Here’s what you need to know about BA.4 and BA.5, the two most prevalent subvariants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
What is COVID BA.5?
The SARS-CoV-2 virus first began infecting people in late 2019, and its infections caused the disease known as COVID-19. Since then, the virus has mutated numerous times, and some of those mutations
Currently, the most common types of COVID-19 are two subvariants of the omicron variant, named BA.4 and BA.5. Together, these two subvariants have become the most common throughout the U.S. So if you tested positive for COVID-19 in January, and have tested positive again in the last few weeks, you probably were infected with different types of the same virus.
Fernando, who has a PhD in epidemiology, said one way to think about variants and subvariants of the original virus is to understand that the virus is trying to mutate so that it can better survive and continue to spread.
“Every hurdle that it comes across, it evolves in order to bypass or surpass that obstacle,” Fernando said.
More than two years into the pandemic, millions of Americans have been infected with the virus. So these latest subvariants have become better at bypassing your immune response system and finding ways to keep spreading.
What are the symptoms of COVID BA.4 and COVID BA.5?
The symptoms of the omicron subvariant are similar to previous iterations of the virus, with one notable exception, Fernando said. Health care workers are seeing fewer people with fevers, which was more common in earlier versions of the virus. For people who have been vaccinated and received a booster shot against COVID-19, these subvariants will generally cause milder symptoms, Fernando said. Some people might not even realize they have COVID-19, or else it might feel like a cold.
But for people who haven’t been fully vaccinated, or those with chronic conditions that put them at higher risk, the subvariants can still cause severe illness and disease.
One reason scientists are so concerned about these subvariants is that they are unusually good at getting past the body’s immune system. Even if you’ve had COVID-19 before, you can still get re-infected, because BA.4 and BA.5 are just different enough that they can slip past the defenses your immune system puts up.
“Even those who were infected six months ago, it’s still pretty good at bypassing your inherent immunity,” Fernando said.
Are COVID-19 numbers increasing in Tarrant County?
Yes. On Thursday, there were 593 people who had tested positive for COVID-19 in Dallas-Fort Worth area hospitals. (Some of these people might be hospitalized for other reasons and have also tested positive for COVID-19. The state health department does not report the number of people hospitalized solely because of COVID-19). Those 593 people are occupying about 4% of all staffed inpatient beds, according to state data. Of everyone hospitalized in DFW hospitals, about 4.53% have COVID-19.
Also on Thursday, there were 24 children hospitalized with COVID-19 in Dallas-Fort Worth hospitals, according to state data.
The number of people testing positive for the virus is also increasing, but that doesn’t tell the full story, according to epidemiologists. Because so many more people are taking at-home tests, fewer positive results are getting reported to local and state health departments. For those people are taking tests at pharmacies, hospitals or their doctors office, the number of people testing positive has stayed roughly same, according to data from the federal government. But the test positivity rate — the number of people who test positive compared to the total number of tests — has increased to 26.2% in the last week, according to federal data for Tarrant County. That rate likely means that are additional positive cases that are not being reflected in the numbers. Community transmission of COVID-19 in Tarrant County is high, and public health officials said the best steps for protection still apply: Get vaccinated and boosted, wear a well-fitted respirator (ideally, something with better protection that cloth mask), and avoid large groups of people indoors, especially if you don’t know their vaccination status.
Where can I get the COVID-19 vaccine or booster in Fort Worth?
COVID-19 vaccines and boosters remain free to the public, even if you don’t have health insurance. If someone tries to charge you for a COVID-19 vaccine or booster, you can report the incident to the federal government by calling 1-800-HHS-TIPS or online at tips.hhs.gov.
Vaccines are widely available throughout Tarrant County. You can search for vaccines online by visiting vaccines.gov. Most pharmacies and clinics will have the vaccine available, often without an appointment. If you need help finding a vaccine near you, or if you know someone who is having difficulty finding the vaccine, send your question to the Star-Telegram by emailing email@example.com or calling or texting 817-203-4391.