New BA.5 COVID-19 omicron variant 'most transmissible yet'

Two and a half years into the pandemic, Kaiser Permanente Georgia physician and director of epidemiology Dr. Felipe Lobelo says we're facing the most transmissible subvariant of the virus yet.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention says the BA.5 omicron subvariant is now driving just over half of all new infections.

"It borders into the territory of measles, which is the most infectious agent we know of,'  Dr. Lobelo says.  "And, because it's so transmissible, we know what happens when millions of people get exposed to the virus. You're going to have not only lots of cases, but the potential for increased hospitalizations and deaths, unfortunately.   We're starting to see a surge in hospitalizations not only in Georgia but across the country."

As of Friday, Georgia Department of Public Health says 1,113 people statewide are hospitalized with COVID-19 AND another 340 Patients are being tested for the virus.

The UK-based ZOE Health Study, in which millions of smartphone users are their COVID-19 symptoms with researchers, is finding fewer people infected with the omicron subvariants are reporting traditional COVID-19 symptoms, such as shortness of breath or loss of taste or smell, and more are reporting sore throat and hoarseness.  

But, Dr. Lobelo, says the symptoms are largely consistent with earlier variants.

FILE -Transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (gold) within endosomes of a heavily infected nasal Olfactory Epithelial Cell. (NIH/NAID/IMAGE.FR/BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

"You have the headache, fever, muscle aches," Lobelo says.  "There have been some reports, particularly in England, that some people experience meningitis-like symptoms with BA.5, like a very stiff neck, and they're bothered by light.  But the CDC or any other organizations hasn't said BA.5 has had different symptoms or more severe symptoms.  What we know is that it's so transmissible. And to some extent it evades the protection that we had from previous infections."

Nationally, about 59% of US counties have a medium or high level of COVID-19, according to the CDC.

In Metro Atlanta, Cobb, Paulding, Douglas, Coweta and Spalding Counties all have high community COVID-19 community levels.  

Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett Counties have low levels of the virus.

Dr. Lobelo says if you live in a community with medium or high levels of the virus, wear a mask in crowded indoor settings such as bars or gyms.

"I'd probably avoid those places for a few weeks. Or wear an N95, if you have to go to those place," Lobelo says.  "Because, there's a pretty good likelihood someone in that crowd has COVID, and this virus is so transmissible that, if you're not protected, you have a higher chance of getting it."