New COVID variants will likely become even more transmissible, Douglas County health officer says

photo by: Kevin Anderson/Journal-World File Photo

The Lawrence-Douglas County health department's home at the Community Health Facility, 200 Maine St., is pictured in this file photo from July 2010.

As new, more transmissible COVID variants find their way to Douglas County, the county’s health officer says future variants will likely continue to become even more infectious.

The omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 are responsible for the latest surge, accounting for 80% of COVID cases across the United States. The subvariants are identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “variants of concern,” meaning that they display evidence of increased transmissibility or that existing treatments and vaccines aren’t as effective against them. On top of being more infectious than previous variants, BA.4 and BA.5 are also reinfecting people who have already had COVID before.

A handful of BA.4 and BA.5 cases have been identified in Douglas County so far, county health officer Dr. Jennifer Schrimsher said, but any figure on that front is probably a gross underestimate given the prevalence of self-testing. Schrimsher said because there have been continuous COVID infections occurring in the community, regardless of how many or few, that gives the virus the opportunity to mutate more rapidly.

“A virus will outcompete itself, other lineages of itself,” Schrimsher said. “So if I am able to infect more people and I am able to get past the defenses, then I am going to get further.”

Schrimsher said it’s something we’ve seen before, first with the alpha and delta variants and most recently with omicron and its various subvariants. What’s next? It could be a variant that completely evades immunity regardless of vaccination, Schrimsher said, but the hope is that a “base of immunity” develops through enough antibodies from infections and continued vaccination.

Infectious disease physicians like Schrimsher have to reckon with these types of scenarios and adapt to meet the changes as they come.

“In our job, we understand that we will never win certain battles,” Schrimsher said. “If there’s a bacteria that we cannot eradicate but yet we repeatedly treat, we know the outcome of that. We know the outcome is whatever antibiotics we have been using will not work eventually — maybe the next time, even. This also happens with viruses. It doesn’t seem like this virus is ever going to say, ‘You know what, I don’t need to be as virulent, I don’t need to be as infectious. I’m going to slow down.'”

Especially for people who are vaccinated, Schrimsher said the symptoms for the newest subvariants don’t tend to be different from those seen in earlier variants. But the risk of “long COVID” — when people experience long-term effects from their infection such as changes in their senses of smell or taste or chronic fatigue — increases with each subsequent infection, Schrimsher said, meaning BA.4 and BA.5 present a different danger than previous strains. That risk is mitigated by vaccination.

On that note, Schrimsher said she expects that a fourth booster dose will be made available to people of all ages sooner rather than later, likely well before fall. Since late March, only certain immunocompromised individuals and people older than 50 have been eligible for the additional booster dose.

Schrimsher said it’s important to have multiple layers of protection against the virus.

“Snipers are great, but when there’s that many opposing troops and they’re that snakey, it helps to have a ton of infantry and back-ups,” Schrimsher said. “It’s just continuing to build that base of your immune system.”

New variants like these are something local public health leaders have seen coming. In recent months, Schrimsher said the health department has elected to focus on educating the public and letting them make their own informed decisions rather than being “reactive” to each new COVID surge, as long as the virus isn’t taxing the health care and school systems.

“It’s a risk-benefit for everyone individually; what’s an acceptable level of risk for you as a person, as an individual?” Schrimsher said. “Of course it still affects the community and of course we wish more people would be safer, but here’s the information, here’s the things you should be doing.”

Nevertheless, the things people can do to protect themselves from COVID remain the same as ever, Schrimsher said. People who have been on the fence about getting vaccinated should do so, whether it’s the first dose or a booster shot. Wearing a mask while indoors in public places and opting for outdoor activities where social distancing is possible can also decrease your risk.

Schrimsher said she’d also encourage people to be prepared for mask requirements to return at individual businesses, and to prepare for events to be canceled entirely in the event of a COVID outbreak.

“We’re learning to live with it, but we should be prepared from some strains that are going to throw us for a loop before we get to the end,” Schrimsher said.

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