Coronavirus

Experts Warn of Latest COVID-19 Subvariant as CDC Raises Dallas County Threat Level to Red

Dallas County is witnessing a surge in BA.5 cases.
Dallas County is witnessing a surge in BA.5 cases. Photo by nick on Unsplash
For many in North Texas, masks and social distancing have felt like things of the past over the last several months. Yet experts warn that the coronavirus is returning with a vengeance in the form of a new subvariant: BA.5.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) raised Dallas County’s risk level to “high” last week, along with Tarrant and Collin counties. Guidance for the red alert includes indoor mask use while in public.

BA.5 is “fascinating” when considering previous versions of the virus, said Dr. Erin Carlson, an associate clinical professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“This is like the perfect storm of those variants,” she said.

BA.5 is now the dominant strain, making up around two-thirds of new U.S. cases, Carlson said. BA.5 has three frightening characteristics, she explained. On top of being more infectious than any other COVID variant to date, it can seriously harm the lungs and evade previous immunity from vaccine or natural antibodies.

Carlson said the previous omicron variant liked to replicate in the upper respiratory tract. But BA.5, which is a more vicious omicron subvariant, thrives in the lungs and can “wreak havoc” for the immunocompromised.

Everyone is tired of having to deal with COVID-19, but BA.5 isn’t something to take lightly, Carlson said. The silver lining is that the vaccine is widely available, so people can protect themselves from serious illness.

No one wants to wear masks or social distance anymore. That, combined with how contagious BA.5 is, doesn’t bode well for limiting its spread, Carlson said.

We'll likely never get rid of COVID-19 at this rate, she added, but it’s still important to get vaccinated. People need to reframe their thinking from “vaccines protect us from getting sick” to “vaccines protect us from dying.”

Statistics show that unvaccinated people are up to 15 times more likely to die compared to the vaccinated, Carlson noted. Chances of hospitalization are around 7.5 times higher for the unvaccinated.

“Everyone's going to get this,” she said. “It just depends on how sick you want to be.”

"The good news is that with these measures, most people can live their lives and enjoy normal activities." – Dr. Rodney E. Rohde

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Dallas County’s health department initially kept its own threat level at yellow versus the CDC’s red. (It updated to orange over the weekend.) Director Dr. Philip Huang told The Dallas Morning News that the discrepancy could be the result of a different scoring system.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins tweeted on Friday that the county was witnessing “a total of 690 newly reported cases of COVID-19 within 14 days of specimen collection date,” along with three deaths.

He added that hospitalizations in Dallas County had increased 32% over the past week and urged people to take precautions, such as testing and wearing masks.

“Please do your part today and in the coming weeks to ensure this current wave doesn’t grow even larger,” he wrote.

Taking pandemic precautions has been tiring for many, but it’s important to think of those around you who could be immunocompromised, said Dr. Rodney E. Rohde, a professor and chair of the Clinical Laboratory Science Program at Texas State University. For some, their age may be a risk factor. Others have endured organ transplants or may be battling HIV or cancer.

Research has shown that vaccination is highly effective in reducing severe disease and that masking can prevent further spread, said Rohde, who’s also an associate adjunct professor at Austin Community College. We should take the lessons learned over the past two-and-a-half years and continue to apply them in the ongoing war against the pandemic, he believes.

“The good news is that with these measures, most people can live their lives and enjoy normal activities. It takes all of us to protect others around us,” Rohde said by email. “We also still need to find a way to increase vaccine equity globally to help stop virus mutations from popping up.”

Dallas County has several clinics where residents can receive their first or second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, plus booster shots.

Carlson encourages everyone to get vaccinated if they haven’t already. Those who have should be sure to get their booster shot when the time comes, she said: “That's how we can all do our part to help our whole community stay safe.”
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter