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A new COVID subvariant is now dominant in the U.S. Here's what you need to know

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

BA.5, a subvariant of omicron, is now dominant in the U.S., and 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 joins us now with more. Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa - good to be here.

CHANG: Good to have you. OK, so tell us more about BA.5. Like, does its rise mean we're going to go into another surge here in the U.S.?

AUBREY: Well, I think we're in the midst of a silent surge of it. At a time when most people use rapid tests, it's hard to know just how many people are infected.

CHANG: Yeah.

AUBREY: But one indicator, Ailsa, is that hospitalizations appear to be rising slightly again. And reinfections are on the rise, too, according to some data from New York, for instance. Some people who were infected with omicron in December or January are getting it again. Here's Michael Osterholm. He's an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: This is really a hyper-transmissible virus. And if you look right now, as BA.5 is increasing, we're seeing this exposure now with the level of infections where this virus is. If you have a good elevator ride, you very well could get infected.

AUBREY: This really struck me, Ailsa - this idea that an elevator ride with an infected person could be enough of an exposure...

CHANG: Yeah.

AUBREY: ...Even for those of us who've been vaccinated and boosted.

CHANG: I mean, I'm one of those people who got COVID back in December. So where does this leave us? What does this mean for the fall, you think?

AUBREY: Well, the more curveballs this virus has thrown, the more humble scientists like Osterholm have become. It's just hard to predict. But I think what is clear, according to lots of the infectious disease experts I talk to, is that even as the subvariants have become even more transmissible, the bottom line is that the impact of a BA.5 surge or whatever subvariant comes next will not likely be on the scale of last winter. We will be able to manage better. I talked to Anna Durbin, a physician at Johns Hopkins, about this. She said we're already seeing this. The combination of prior infections, vaccinations is protective. She points out hospitalizations are up but only slightly, and there are more tools to treat people who do get sick.

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 as more children are vaccinated and new boosters come online to specifically target omicron, which could happen around September, this will be helpful.

CHANG: Well, about children - it has been - what? - three weeks since very young children - we're talking between 6 months old and 5 years old - they've been eligible to get COVID vaccines. So have parents actually been getting their little children vaccinated the past three weeks?

AUBREY: So far, only about 1% of the roughly 20 million kids in this age group have gotten their first shot. The CDC just released first numbers last night - 267,000 children. My first reaction to that was, wow. After hearing from so many parents who were so eager, it was quite low, it seemed.

CHANG: Yeah.

AUBREY: But I spoke to Dr. Cameron Webb. He's a senior advisor on the White House COVID response team. He says the expectation is that many parents will ultimately opt for vaccines during well visits.

CAMERON WEBB: What we heard from parents is that they wanted to get their kids vaccinated, overwhelmingly, in their pediatrician's offices, and nearly half said they wanted to do it during a regularly scheduled visit. And so you're going to continue to see a steady stream of parents with kids under 5 getting their kids vaccinated in the weeks and months to come.

AUBREY: Some pediatricians have just begun to start offering the COVID shot to this age group, so there's some optimism the pace will pick up or at least be steady.

CHANG: That is NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you, Alison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.