The omicron BA.5 variant is driving COVID reinfections across the U.S. BA.5 is now the dominant omicron strain in the U.S. It's good at evading the immune system, though doesn't appear to cause more serious illness.

A new dominant omicron strain in the U.S. is driving up cases — and reinfections

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The most dominant strain of COVID in this country at this point is a subvariant called BA.5. It accounts for more than half of all COVID infections. Its quick rise corresponds with an increase in reinfections and hospitalizations. NPR's Allison Aubrey has been looking into this and joins us this morning. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So is BA.5 bringing us another surge?

AUBREY: Well, at a time when people use rapid tests at home, it's hard to know just how many people are infected. But one indicator is that hospitalizations are rising. About 31,000 people are in the hospital with COVID right now across the country. Admissions are up about 5% compared to a week ago. And reinfections appear to be on the rise, too. Some people who got COVID this winter are getting it again. I spoke to Bob Wachter. He's a physician at UC San Francisco. He says BA.5 is highly transmissible. And it manages to kind of sidestep, at least partially, some of the immunity from prior infections and vaccinations.

BOB WACHTER: Not only is it more infectious, but your prior immunity doesn't count for as much as it used to. And that means that the old saw that I just had COVID a month ago and so I have COVID immunity superpowers, I'm not going to get it again, that no longer holds.

AUBREY: That's not something any of us want to hear, right? Speaking as someone who just had COVID last month, I don't want it again. It felt pretty rotten.

MARTIN: Right. So vaccines aren't good at fighting this. Our immunity isn't as good as it used to be. I mean, is this variant any more dangerous than previous strains?

AUBREY: There's really no evidence that BA.5 causes any more serious illness. And though many people are getting infected or reinfected, the impact of BA.5 will not likely be on the scale of what we saw last winter. We will be able to manage it better. That's what infectious disease experts are telling me. I spoke to Anna Durbin, a physician at Johns Hopkins, about this. She says, you know, the combination of prior infection and vaccination, it is protective. And treatments are better. Last winter, we had about 3,000 deaths a day. Now we're averaging about 300.

ANNA DURBIN: Most people have some underlying immunity that is helpful in fighting the virus. We have antivirals. And, I think, because of that, we're not seeing a rise in deaths. And that's very reassuring. That tells me that this virus, even BA.5, is not so divergent that it is escaping all arms of the immune system.

AUBREY: She says new booster shots that can specifically target omicron should be helpful. They won't halt all infections or reinfections. But they will help prevent serious illness and death.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about reinfections. Do we know whether there are long-term consequences for people who get COVID again and again?

AUBREY: Well, there's new data to show that people who've had COVID more than once may have an elevated risk of some long COVID symptoms. I spoke to Ziyad Al-Aly of the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System. He did the study. Analyzing medical records, he identified thousands of cases of reinfection. And he saw a wide range of problems diagnosed in the months that followed.

ZIYAD AL-ALY: Some respiratory conditions, you know, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, you know, brain fog and a lot of other conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and kidney disease. So even if you're vaccinated, it's still best - it's absolutely best - to avoid reinfection.

AUBREY: There's a lot of BA.5 out there. So he says it would be wise to take steps to reduce your exposure. Even if it seems unfashionable or unpopular to mask up in a crowded, indoor space, that could help protect you.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thank you for your reporting.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.

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