As students prepare for the upcoming semester, COVID-19 continues to spread, with new mutations leading to infections and reinfections in students and local community members.
Two new omicron subvariants, BA.5 and BA.4, are currently the primary variants of concern.
Over the past several months, the omicron BA.5 and BA.4 subvariants have chipped away at other coronavirus strains to become the two most prevalent.
During the week of Aug. 6, BA.5 comprised 87.1 percent of cases in the U.S., while the BA.4 variant comprised 6.7 percent of cases.
Dr. David Wohl, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at UNC, said that the current dominant subvariants are highly transmissible. He explained that this represents the broader evolutionary progress of COVID-19, as the virus has mutated to spread to more people.
“The good news is the virus has no pressure to become more lethal," he said. "There’s no advantage of the virus to kill people. But there is an advantage for it to spread to as many of us as possible.”
Orange County response
Public health experts and local leaders continue to encourage community members to take many of the same precautions they have recommended throughout the pandemic in response to the subvariants. These precautions include staying up to date with booster shots, wearing masks in crowded indoor spaces and prioritizing outdoor gatherings.
In Orange County, the COVID-19 positivity rate on Aug. 8 was 18 percent, with a daily average of 51 cases. One hundred and fifty-eight patients were hospitalized in the week of July 29 to Aug. 4, a 13 percent increase from two weeks prior.
Carrboro Mayor Damon Seils said that Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough continue to coordinate their pandemic response, as they have been doing since March 2020.
Although Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger encourages Chapel Hill residents to wear masks in crowded indoor spaces, the Town does not intend to enact mask mandates in response to the current increase in cases.
Susan Romaine, mayor pro tem of Carrboro said the Town does not plan to institute a mask mandate in response to these subvariants.
According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, 77 percent of Orange County residents aged five or older have been vaccinated with at least two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or at least one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as of August 10.
However, just 60 percent of Orange County residents have received at least one booster shot.
“We know that protection against the infection from the vaccines declines over time, so people really do need to get boosted,” Romaine said.
Dr. Myron Cohen, professor of medicine, microbiology and epidemiology at UNC, said the vaccines continue to be effective against severe cases of COVID-19. He said three or four vaccine doses are most effective against omicron and its subvariants.
“It’s going to help you to be vaccinated, and for people who are at greater risk, getting four shots and keeping up with what we’re doing with the boosters is really important,” Cohen said.
Wohl added that the current vaccines and booster shots have helped reduce hospitalizations. He added that while the vaccines may not be as effective against BA.5 as prior strains, vaccinated people are less likely to be infected than unvaccinated people.
He said that, on average, each person who gets COVID-19 infects between four and 10 other people, which he cited as a reason for people to continue to take the pandemic seriously.
“I don’t understand why people are not masking when they’re indoors in crowded places," Wohl said. "That doesn’t make sense to me."
Cohen said wearing masks and limiting exposure to crowded indoor settings, such as restaurants, are effective measures for anyone who does not want to get infected.
He also said that an increased understanding of how COVID-19 works should help the fall semester at UNC operate more smoothly than in previous semesters.
“Students should enjoy their semester while respecting this virus and doing what they can to stay healthy,” he said.
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