COVID cases trending up as BA.5 variant spreads; should we wear a mask?

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Friday, July 22, 2022
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Health officials are urging caution as COVID-19 cases continue to trend up nationally.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Health officials are urging caution as COVID-19 cases continue to trend up nationally.

The CDC reported the 7-day moving average of new cases was 39,777 last July 20th. This year on July 20th, the 7-day moving average of new cases was reported at 125,827, more than three times higher.

"If your county happens to be one of those high transmission ranges, then yes I think it makes good sense to be wearing a mask when you're out in those public places. Partly because the virus is more transmissible right now, partly because we know it's a considerate thing for other individuals, not knowing whether or not they have a troubled immune system," said Dr. Nicholas Turner, an assistant Professor of Infectious Diseases at Duke University Hospital.

At Pullen Park Friday, parents shared how they were adjusting to the uptick.

"It's too hard to keep the kids at home while in the summer break. So we just take care of ourselves, using sanitizer, sometimes if it's crowded, we use masks. But overall, we're fine. We're getting used to having COVID for over two years now," Mai Allam said.

Allam says she brings her daughter to the park during the week when it's less crowded.

"When I'm not outside, I've got a mask on. My granddaughter at daycare, she wears a mask all day. I'm not going to movies, I'm not going on cruises, I'm not going on vacation, I'm not even going to funerals. Until this is a lot lower, we've changed our whole routine," Stanley Davis added.

Yesterday, Davis shared she received her first COVID-19 vaccine dose.

Statewide, only 3% of children 4 and younger, 27% of 5 to 11 year-olds, and 48% of 12 to 17 year-olds have received at least one vaccine dose. Last week, NCDHHS said 10% of reported cases were in school-aged children.

"Thankfully, severe disease, while it does happen, is still far less common in children than in adults. I think in the past we felt children weren't a big contributor to the spread of COVID, but that is shifting now," Dr. Turner said.

Health officials believe case counts are underreported, due to the prevalence of at-home testing.

"I have a middle schooler who will be going back on a traditional calendar next month. And it definitely is something that I'm concerned about. We are also in a different place with this virus. We have more treatments available now that can reduce the severity of disease, which can reduce transmission, and I think there's an increasing uptick of those," infection prevention specialist at WakeMed Health and Hospitals Jessica Dixon explained.

Dixon also discussed the recent approval of the Novavax vaccine, which could lead to an increase in people getting vaccinated.

The increase in cases is largely spurred by the more transmissible BA.5 variant, which accounts for about 50% of cases in North Carolina, and the majority of cases nationally. This recent rise also coincides with the removal or relaxation of most COVID restrictions including mask mandates and capacity restrictions, as well as increases in travel.

"If I were unvaccinated right now, I would mask everywhere I went. If you're vaccinated but your last booster like ours was last fall, then I think it's really time to think about masking if you're going to be in a crowded, indoor event," Dixon said.

"If your county happens to be one of those high transmission ranges, then yes I think it makes good sense to be wearing a mask when you're out in those public places. Partly because the virus is more transmissible right now, partly because we know it's a considerate thing for other individuals, not knowing whether or not they have a troubled immune system," Dr. Turner added.

Hospitalizations and ICU admissions are lagging indicators, though Dr. Turner noted about six percent of current hospitalizations are due to COVID.

"I'm not really anticipating that we'd be anywhere near those concerns for a surge capacity like we were with Delta. I think the vaccines have been a pretty big game-changer for this (variant), because we've seen a marked reduction in the number of people getting hospitalized, even though breakthrough infections clearly happen," Turner said.

Another focus: booster shots. Protection from the vaccine and booster wanes over time, and many adults received their booster dose last fall or winter. Moderna and Pfizer are working on omicron-specific vaccines to be released later this year.

"This is a great risk-benefit discussion for people to have with their physicians. To summarize it, I would say vulnerable individuals, if they are older, have medical comorbidities, or have immune system troubles, I am still recommending that they continue with their boosters now and not lose time, since we know the virus is still circulating. If on the other hand, someone was recently boosted, within these last four to six months, or is actually pretty healthy and young at baseline, it may well make sense for them to hang on for the extra omicron-specific vaccines to come around. I think it's also worth noting if someone chose to get their booster now, it would not preclude them from getting the updated vaccine when it's available in the fall as well," Turner said.