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4 things to know about the latest COVID-19 subvariant that's caused increasing cases
Covid variant
Northeast Georgia Medical Center registered nurse Carolina Love works in the hospital hallway Wednesday, July 13, 2022, in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

COVID-19 cases at Northeast Georgia Health System have risen over the past two months as a highly contagious omicron subvariant lingers, though experts say cases are less severe than past strains.

There were 58 COVID-19 positive patients in the health system on July 12, the last day that data were updated, compared to just three such patients on May 3, which was the lowest number this year. Cases remain relatively low compared to the peak of the omicron wave in January when more than 300 patients were infected with COVID-19. 

But community case numbers are likely underreported due to the proliferation of at-home COVID-19 tests. 

Here’s what you need to know about the latest subvariant and vaccine booster shots from the health system’s infectious disease expert.

The article continues below. 

What is the dominant strain right now and how severe is it?

BA.5, a subvariant of omicron, accounts for about 65% of cases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control Prevention data as of July 9. Similar omicron subvariants account for the vast majority of cases since the last large spike in January. 

“The big thing is that these variants are causing mostly mild to moderate infections,” said Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, medical director for infectious diseases at the health system. “Most often the symptoms I’m hearing are that someone has bad muscle aches, fatigue, a fever, sore throat, some may have a cough.” 

Only a small percentage of patients in the intensive care unit at the health system are there due to a severe COVID-19 infection, Mannepalli said. 

“The hallmark of these variants is that they’re highly transmissible,” Mannepalli said.

On July 12, 58 patients in the health system tested positive for COVID-19, but Mannepalli said many of those cases were for asymptomatic patients who came to the hospital for reasons other than COVID-19. 

How effective is my vaccine against the omicron subvariants?

“The big thing that we are noticing is that the vaccinations are still preventing severe infections and hospitalizations,” Mannepalli said. 

The omicron subvariants are more effective at infecting people who are vaccinated or have antibodies from a past infection, Mannepalli said. But even if infected, people who are vaccinated and have a booster shot have protection against severe infections. 

“With this variant, there is what we call an ‘immune escape mechanism,’” Mannepalli said. “They are able to escape or evade the immunity from the antibodies from the vaccines or the past infections. The vaccines are still very effective at preventing severe infections.”

People older than 50 and those who are immunocompromised and older than 12 years old are advised by the CDC to get a second booster shot four months after their first booster. The first booster for Moderna and Pfizer vaccines is recommended five months after completing the initial round of vaccinations. 

The effectiveness of vaccines wanes slightly over time, Mannepalli said, depending on changing variants and the type of vaccine. 

“If it's available and we meet the criteria, we should go ahead and get it,” Mannepalli said of second booster shots. 

Vaccines with formulas specific to omicron and its subvariants may arrive as soon as this fall, Mannepalli said. 

What are the effects of long-haul COVID?

“These new variants are causing mild infections and maybe a bad flu that we get over in a few days, but something that we should not forget is the COVID lang-hauler symptoms,” Mannepalli said.

Some people who are infected with COVID-19 may have symptoms for months afterward with damage to their respiratory, digestive and nervous systems. 

“For some it’s just fatigue that lasts for months and months,” Mannepalli said.  But other symptoms include cystic fibrosis in the lungs, worsening of an underlying joint disease, brain fog, headaches, chest pain, diarrhea or alopecia. Unvaccinated patients are more likely to experience long COVID symptoms, according to the CDC. 

“Long-hauler symptoms of COVID are so vast, so different and some of them psychiatric,” she said. “I think we underestimate, we under-diagnose the psychological effects following COVID.” 

While the virus circulates in the body, it can create an inflammatory response that causes other systems and organs to be affected, which can cause long COVID-19 symptoms. 

“It’s a result of basically the inflammation, the immune response that happens in the body,” Mannepalli said. “I’ve had patients that are going more than a year after infections still have these symptoms.”

It’s not a one-box-fits-all when it comes to long haulers, she said. 

How should I report my at-home positive COVID-19 test result?

The Georgia Department of Health recommends people who test positive for COVID-19 using an at-home test report to their primary care physician to ensure accurate reporting, spokesperson Natasha Yong wrote in a statement to The Times. The department does not have a self-test reporting hotline, but people may call 770-519-7661 or 770-535-5743 ext. 2600 to receive guidance on isolation rules. 

The department does not have an estimate of how many COVID cases are going unreported, Young wrote. The CDC provides a community transmission level map that takes into account the positivity rate for PCR tests to indicate how high the risk of transmission is in a particular area. 

As of July 7, the CDC designated Hall County as a medium level of COVID-19 transmission. About 51% of county residents were fully vaccinated as of July 11, according to data from the department. 

This story was originally published in The Gainesville Times, a sister publication of the Dawson County News.