The Omicron variant BA.5 has become the dominant COVID strain nationwide, and it’s spreading rapidly in Los Angeles County. Local public health officials say they will likely implement a new universal mask mandate in indoor places by July 29.
BA.5 is unique because it can reinfect individuals who recently had the virus.
“It's very, very resistant to … at least the frontline immune responses that we develop when we get vaccinated or when we have prior infections. … So even if you've been vaccinated, even if you had Omicron four weeks ago, you've still really not got protection against BA.5,” says Paula Cannon, an associate professor of microbiology at USC.
In Los Angeles County, the case rate has hovered around 5,400 for the past week. While hospitalization rates tend to lag behind positive cases, Cannon says she expects that advancements in medicine and COVID treatments will prevent death rates from reaching previous spikes.
“The vast majority of vaccinated people are not going to end up in [the] hospital with this variant,” she says.
Cannon adds that a new mask mandate could prevent hospital systems from getting overwhelmed again. A flood of COVID patients, even if their cases aren’t dire, can divert much-needed resources from other critical patients.
“It creates all this extra hassle for the hospital, they have to try and isolate you,” says Cannon. “The strain on our hospitals caused by a lot of people, even if they're not sick with COVID, is what we're worried about.”
Cannon says that in addition to masking, those who haven’t received their boosters should do so as soon as possible, as the RNA COVID vaccines are a “three dose minimum series.” Individuals who have received a third dose should consider getting a fourth after three months, particularly if they are over 50 or have an underlying health condition.
While a number of Angelenos have stopped masking since the previous mandate was relaxed, Cannon says that continuing to wear well-fitting masks in indoor public spaces is an important way to keep protecting yourself and others. She understands that many Angelenos are exhausted from dealing with the pandemic’s seemingly endless cycles — she is too.
“But you know who isn't exhausted? It's COVID,” she says.