Omicron Surge COVID Testing (copy)

Pharmacy technician Ryan White swirls a swab in a vile of solution as he administers a COVID-19 PCR test through the drive-up window of Forward Pharmacy in McFarland in January.

Nearly two-and-a-half years since the coronavirus pandemic began, a new highly infectious and transmissible variant has emerged, but cases and hospitalizations are remaining stable locally and statewide at the moment.

While the new variant has prompted higher rates of reinfection than seen previously, deaths also remain low, according to Morgan Finke, a spokesperson for Public Health Madison & Dane County.

The new strain, called BA.5, is fueling yet another wave of COVID infections across the globe and country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported BA.5 is now the dominant strain in the U.S., accounting for more than 60% of cases.

It is also the most transmissible variant to date. 

The majority of samples sequenced at this point locally continue to be identified as Omicron, specifically the sub-variant BA.2.12.1. But the number identified as BA.5 is increasing, Finke said. Specific numbers aren’t available yet.

The county saw 216 new cases Thursday alone. The last time cases hit those levels was in mid-April, and prior to that it was early December, pre-Omicron surge.

Finke helped clear up some questions people might be wondering, pertaining to the new strain, masking guidance and what comes next.

What are all the BA COVID strains? 

BA strains are all versions of Omicron. BA.1 was responsible for the initial Omicron wave from December 2021. Then BA.2 became dominant in April.

BA.2.12.1, another strain of COVID, made up about 58% of all new cases in the country in late May, according to estimates by the CDC. BA.5 is now taking its place as the dominant variant.

The FDA has recommended that vaccine makers make “bivalent” boosters for the fall, Finke said — boosters that will protect against the original COVID and the most recent Omicron variants.

“Until then, our best advice is to get up to date on your vaccines, watch out for COVID symptoms and get tested if you have symptoms or were exposed,” Finke said.

What about the CDC Community Levels?

Dane County is at a Medium COVID-19 Community Level, based on CDC metrics. The county has been at this level since April 21. The metrics examine bed capacity for COVID patients, hospital admissions and case levels. 

Finke said people can use the community levels system, which ranges from low to high, to help make daily decisions, like how often to participate in indoor gatherings or large crowd settings. 

What are the recommendations?

PHMDC could change guidance as time goes on and information evolves. As of now, none of its COVID recommendations have changed.

Finke said staying up to date on vaccines is the best thing to do, “no matter the community level.” Other considerations include:

  • Those who are immunocompromised or at high risk for severe disease should talk to their health care providers about whether or not to wear a mask in public.
  • Those who live with someone at high risk, or come in contact with people who are high risk, might consider wearing a mask while indoors with them or using a home test before coming in contact with them.
  • If exposed to COVID or experiencing symptoms, be sure to get tested and stay home while waiting for results.

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