Nearly three years into the pandemic, we’re still seeing new variants emerge. Recently, a new subvariant of Omicron, BA.5, has led to a spike in COVID-19 cases in metro Atlanta. The Omicron subvariant is even more transmissible than its predecessors. 

“It is a nightmare in its transmissibility, but it doesn’t seem to be more deadly than the previous variants,” according to Dr. Frita Fisher, an Atlanta-based medical doctor who produces video explainers addressing community health concerns.

BA.5 is also now the dominant strain in the Southeast, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Public Health told Capital B Atlanta that BA.5 made up about 66% of cases in the state. 

Capital B Atlanta explains what we know about BA.5 so far.

What’s BA.5?

The BA.5 subvariant is the latest of the very contagious, rapidly spreading Omicron variant of COVID-19. According to the White House, BA.5 and BA.4 now make up 80% of COVID-19 cases in the country.

Wait — so it’s a subvariant of Omicron? What does that mean?

Essentially, BA.5 stems from Omicron, which is a variant of COVID-19. There are at least four other variants of the Omicron variant aside from BA.5, including the aforementioned BA.4, as well as BA.1.1, BA.2, and BA.3. The CDC describes variants as a virus’s genetic code that may contain one or more mutations. Mutations happen frequently as viruses copy themselves throughout your body, but only sometimes do they change the characteristics of the virus. 

Subvariants, on the other hand, have slight genetic mutations that make them harder to distinguish from their parent variant. 

What are the symptoms? Is it worse than previous subvariants?

The symptoms — coughing, sneezing, muscle aches, and other flu-like, upper respiratory issues — are pretty similar to past COVID-19 variants. On a brighter note, it’s less deadly than previous variants. According to the DPH, hospitalizations are up in Georgia about 20% over the last two weeks.

Even with lower chances of hospitalization, Black people should still be concerned about catching this subvariant. Research is showing that new infections of COVID-19 can increase risk of new health problems — including ones that disproportionately affect Black people, like heart issues and diabetes.

Why are local health officials concerned, and how are they responding?

Health officials say they don’t plan to let up on their work on COVID. At the latest DPH meeting, spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said the state’s health department is still encouraging people to get vaccinated with a new campaign called “It’s That Simple.” Nydam said the campaign is an effort to remind residents getting vaccinated is a choice, but details the benefits of vaccination and boosters. 

Are we headed for a surge in infections in Georgia?

Experts say that not only are we likely already in a surge of COVID-19 cases, but the figures are being undercounted because of at-home testing. Nydam says there’s no official mechanism to track at-home COVID-19 tests, which means there are likely more cases than being reported.

In just over two weeks — from June 29 to July 13 — 48,000 confirmed total cases were reported in the state. Experts at the DPH don’t see that number going down. 

“It’s likely that we keep seeing case increases as the subvariant continues to spread,” said Dr. Cherie Drenzek, a state epidemiologist and DPH chief science officer.

I got COVID already, so I should be good, right?

Nope! You should still take precaution. When the first COVID-19 variants started spreading, the CDC said you likely had immunity for about 90 days before catching COVID-19 again. However, even if you’ve been infected with other strains, BA.5 can lead to another bout of COVID-19 regardless of your immunity level. Research shows the BA.5 subvariant seems to evade vaccines, but health officials still encourage vaccination to result in less severe illness. 

How can you avoid BA.5?

Fisher says that with an increased number of cases, she recommends continuing to mask up, which can lower your risk of being infected. 

“It’s family reunion season,” Fisher said. “We still have to be smart. We still have to be safe. Just because it’s your family, your auntie, your grandma, or your cousin, doesn’t mean they can’t have COVID.” 

Some cities are considering reinstating their indoor mask mandates, but it’s unlikely that Georgia will see any statewide mandates anytime soon. During the latest General Assembly session, Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation that allowed parents to opt out of mask mandates, following a trend of many Republican state lawmakers across the country. 

Kenya Hunter is Capital B Atlanta's health reporter. Twitter @KenyaTheHunter