Climbing COVID cases remind us pandemic not over

Pioneer file photo

NORTHERN HILLS — As we head into the summer travel season, experts from Monument Health are cautioning that the emergence of several new subvariants to the COVID-19 virus in the area is causing a spike in unexpected cases.

“Reinfection is the main (cause), and the other one is the unvaccinated folks; that’s what’s causing it,” said Dr. Shankar Kurra, vice president of medical affairs for Monument Health. “These subvariants are very aggressive, 30% to 40% (reinfection rate), which is kind of an astonishing rate for a population that has mostly been infected. We were kind of surprised by that.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been two main variants from the original Wuhan strain of COVID-19: Delta, and Omicron. Kurra explained that unlike the Delta variant, which caused a massive surge throughout the country, Omicron has been able to reproduce a series of subvariants that have emerged as far more transmissible. Those subvariants are categorized as BA.1 (which is the Omicron Variant itself), BA.2, BA.3, BA.4, and BA.5.

“So what’s happening is these folks are getting antibodies from (the Omicron variant), but those antibodies are not effective against the subvariants, which is kind of an interesting phenomenon in itself because we didn’t anticipate or expect that to happen,” Kurra said.

Scientists are currently studying results from South Africa, which has already seen major spikes and dips in all five Omicron subvariants.

According to those studies, Kurra explained that the antibodies formed to fight one subvariant, such as BA.2, don’t necessarily cross protect against the BA.4 or BA.5 subvariants. On top of that, Kurra said the evidence coming out of South Africa and currently being observed in Europe and the U.S., indicate that people who are not vaccinated are five times more likely to be reinfected by a subvariant.

“It doesn’t mean vaccinated folks are completely protected against reinfection, but their risk is a lot lower,” he said.

Kurra said the reason a person’s chances of reinfection climb significantly if they are exposed to a newer subvariant of Omicron is because the number of antibodies produced to fight the previous infection isn’t sufficient to combat the newer one.

Vaccines and booster shots bolster the amount of antibodies in a person’s system, thereby making it harder for the new subvariants to propagate throughout the body.

“The unvaccinated, even though they have antibodies against the subvariants, each of them is so different that they don’t have kind of levels that vaccination provides,” he explained.

Monument Health has been tracking the number of positive infections throughout the pandemic. At the beginning of May, Kurra said the positivity rate of those being tested was around 5%, well within the threshold of “no community spread.” As of Friday morning that number had jumped to 28%, which indicates an exponential spread of the virus.

“That is what we call uncontrolled spread,” Kurra said. “Any time you go over 5% and if you’re anywhere in the 10% or 15% or higher, you basically have unmitigated transmission of the virus.”

Although the Omicron subvariants seem to be spreading rapidly throughout the area, Kurra said hospitalization and death rates are very low for what we would expect to see with a spike like this.

“We are very fortunate that we are not seeing a rise in hospitalization that we would normally have seen with this kind of a steep increase in positive test rates,” he said. “The 65 and older, unfortunately, are still paying the biggest price in terms of mortality.”

Getting vaccinated and staying boosted is the most effective way to protect against the virus and all of its variants.

“That is the only thing that’s going to stop this, because otherwise, as you can see with the positive numbers, the virus itself is being able to get from person to person,” Kurra said. “If you are older, I would say 50 and older, you absolutely want to wear a mask in indoor spaces and crowded places and vaccinate, get the booster.”

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