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What you should know about new COVID-19 variants as cases spike

New cases of COVID-19 are spiking and most of the metro region is at a high transmission level as the latest superinfectious strains of the virus gain ground.

Currently, two “variants of concern,” BA.4 and BA.5, are responsible for 83% of new COVID-19 cases in the Midwest, officials said Friday. BA.5 is considered the dominant strain.

On Friday, Cook, DuPage, Lake, McHenry and Will counties registered high COVID-19 transmission levels, and officials are recommending residents wear face masks indoors and take other precautions.

The term “variants of concern” means “variants that are good at evading our immune system and vaccines that are currently available,” Cook County Health epidemiologist Sharon Welbel explained.

The new mutations emerged in Africa and then Europe recently, and “we knew it was coming,” said Welbel, CCH’s director of hospital epidemiology and infection control.

“It’s a smart virus; it’s learning how to survive. We’re just trying to keep a step ahead of it, and I think we’re doing a pretty good job.”

How can we avoid infections?

“I’m advising people to wear a mask any time you’re indoors” in public spaces, Welbel said. “It’s very likely wherever we go, someone’s going to have COVID.” She also recommends masks outdoors in crowded situations.

Omicron was viewed as a less severe form of COVID-19, causing upper respiratory infections compared to the original strains that resulted in many lower respiratory cases leading to pneumonia.

Where does BA.5 fit in?

“It’s similar to all the omicron (strains) that we’ve seen,” Welbel said. “It does not seem to be causing worse disease.” But because cases are so high, hospitalizations are also increasing, she said.

The US Food and Drug Administration has told drug manufacturers to factor in BA.4 and BA.5 as they develop new COVID-19 boosters.

So far, “we know that people do better if they’re vaccinated, and we absolutely want to get the message out that everybody should be vaccinated,” including boosters, Welbel said.

Numerous school districts will begin classes in August. How can parents avoid sick days with the variants circulating?

Most epidemiologists and Welbel recommend sending children to school with face masks.

“We don’t want our kids getting sick,” she said. “It’s days off for the kid, it’s days off for the parents, and it’s to protect other people.”

Should Illinoisans expect a fall surge in COVID-19 cases?

“I wish I had a crystal ball,” Welbel said. When fall arrives with colder weather, more indoor gatherings and school back in session, illnesses from flu to COVID-19 increase in general, she said.

“That’s why there’s a really big push for vaccinations.”

The daily average of new cases of COVID-19 went up by 20% compared to a week ago, and hospitalizations were up 9.4%, Illinois Department of Public Health data showed Friday.

New cases of COVID-19 numbered 4,607 Friday with 13 more people dying from the respiratory disease, the health department reported.

The seven-day average for new cases is 4,724 compared to 3,935 on July 8.

Patients in the hospital with COVID-19 came to 1,424 as of Thursday night. The average number of hospitalizations is 1,312 in contrast with 1,199 on July 7.

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