Omicron’s BA5 spreading quickly in Georgia

21 Georgia counties are now experiencing high levels of COVID-19 transmission

With yet another highly contagious omicron subvariant taking hold and fueling a new wave of infections and hospitalizations in Georgia, 21 counties scattered across the state, including Cobb County, are now experiencing high levels of COVID-19 transmission, according to federal data.

Dozens more counties in Georgia have moved into medium levels of virus transmission, based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID Data Tracker for community levels, which is based on rates of hospitalizations for COVID and rates of new infections.

The fast-spreading omicron subvariant known as BA.5 has recently become dominant among new U.S. cases. The CDC estimated on Tuesday it now accounts for 66.5% of all new infections in Georgia and other states in the South, including Florida and South Carolina

Experts say BA.5 appears to evade some antibodies from vaccines and previous infection — meaning more people are getting reinfected — though it does not appear to cause more serious illness. At the same time, recent research shows that people who experience repeated reinfections are more likely to suffer long-term effects later, adding to concerns about rising cases.

COVID vaccines are still expected to help stave off severe illness and death against the BA.5 variant, and vaccine makers are working on updated shots that target new forms of the omicron variant.

After dropping to some of the lowest levels during the pandemic, COVID cases in Georgia have been steadily rising with the 7-day average of new confirmed cases increasing to 2,728 as of Wednesday, according to DPH. Now that at-home COVID-19 tests have become more commonplace, public health experts say actual case numbers in the U.S. are far higher than what’s being reported to health agencies. That makes official counts less reliable in capturing the true spread of the virus.

ExploreThe AJC's COVID-19 dashboard

“Even though with this BA.5 rising, just looking at the daily number of cases, it’s not always an accurate view of what’s going on. We’re seeing increased community transmission, the magnitude of this wave is greater than the numbers show because of home testing,” said State epidemiologist Cherie Drenzek at a Georgia Department of Public Health board meeting Tuesday. “So no matter what, precaution and prevention measures, even the traditional ones from the very beginning, are very prudent, but especially vaccination and boosting.”

On Tuesday, the Biden administration’s coronavirus response team outlined a new strategy to tackle the highly contagious BA.5 coronavirus subvariant, which included making it easier for people to get vaccines, boosters, and the antiviral Paxlovid, and easy, free widespread testing. The administration also discussed steps to protect immunocompromised people including making pre-exposure treatments such as Evusheld more widely available, and encouraging building owners to improve ventilation.

The variant, known as BA.5, is “far more transmissible” than previous strains of the virus, said Amber Schmidtke, a public health researcher who tracks COVID-19 in Georgia. “Every time the virus enters another human being, it’s another opportunity to survive, for a mutation that confers an advantage,” she said.

In the most recent edition of her weekly newsletter, “The Covid Digest,” Schmidtke noted that hospitalizations for COVID statewide had risen 200% since April, hovering around 1,200 as of Tuesday. Although this is many fewer than Georgia was seeing in January, the researcher said the recent increase, happening across the state, “is a bad sign.”

Credit: CDC

Credit: CDC

Other public health experts note that while hospitalizations are up, they are nowhere near the levels reached during the winter surge with the original omicron. COVID-19 deaths are also down. The seven-day rolling average of confirmed COVID-19 deaths has fallen into the single digits, down from 84 in mid-February, as measured by dates of reports from DPH.

“The vaccines have done their job in preventing serious illness, hospitalization and death, particularly given the fact that the most vulnerable have been the ones most likely to be vaccinated, so that continues to be a good story,” said Dr. Michael Eriksen, founding dean of Georgia State University’s School of Public Health. “The not-so-good story is that more vaccinated people are getting infected than anyone expected. While we always knew it wasn’t intended to prevent infection, it seems that the new variants are extremely effective in ignoring vaccine status (or prior infection for that matter). . . In fact, there are fewer and fewer people I know who have not been infected.”

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

Even so, while the probability of dying of COVID has dropped dramatically, the risk of developing complications or long COVID is another reason to try and avoid infection, according to health experts.

Restrictions have long gone by the wayside. And as the numbers continue to go up — once again — many people seem to take the latest upswing in stride.

“Most people are saying: I’m tired of this. I’ll live with it and take my chances. Just on a gut level, there is something to be said for that, and I’m hesitant to play the role of the hand-wringing Cassandra,” said Dr. Richard Rothenberg, an epidemiologist with Georgia State University. “But if things do get really bad again, we’ll have to regroup, and I think people will do that, however grudgingly.”

Credit: CCD

Credit: CCD

By the numbers

After dropping some of the lowest levels during the pandemic, COVID cases and hospitalizations are steadily rising in Georgia. This is the most recent data as of Wednesday.

2,728 the 7-day average of new confirmed cases, up from 2,199 a week ago. Now that at-home COVID-19 tests have become more commonplace, public health experts say actual case numbers in the U.S. are far higher than what’s being reported.

1,185 — COVID-19 hospitalizations, up from 1,100 a week ago.

21 — Counties in Georgia with high levels of COVID-19 transmission.