Highly transmissible COVID subvariant makes up more than half of Arizona’s new cases

Jul 14, 2022, 4:15 AM | Updated: 7:37 am

PHOENIX – A highly transmissible new COVID-19 subvariant now makes up more than half of Arizona’s new cases, according to the state health department.

“The omicron subvariant BA.5 accounts for a rapidly growing share of sequenced cases in Arizona — 53% during the week ending July 2 and likely even higher today,” Don Herrington, interim director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said Wednesday in a blog post.

“Evidence suggests that this version of the virus that causes COVID-19 is better at eluding immune protection offered by vaccination or previous infection.”

Medical experts say that while available vaccines aren’t as effective at preventing infections against the new variant as they were against earlier strains, the shots remain an important tool in the fight against the virus.

“This vaccine that’s out there is to the original strain, and now we’re on the fifth iteration of omicron,” Will Humble, president of the Arizona Public Health Association, told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s The Mike Broomhead Show on Wednesday.

“So, the vaccine still is helpful in terms of preventing a bad outcome, but it’s less and less effective at stopping infections in the first place.”

Humble said that while “the virus is gangbusters right now,” the current wave isn’t as worrisome from a health care resource perspective as previous surges.

“You’re not seeing the same pattern that we’ve seen for the last two years where cases go up, hospitalizations go up, then ICU beds go up, then we see death going up. It’s buffered now,” he said.

“So, you see a big increase in cases and you see a moderate increase in inpatient bed hospitalizations and a pretty small increase in intensive care bed use.”

The Arizona Department of Health Services added 15,280 cases and 60 deaths to its COVID-19 dashboard in Wednesday’s weekly update, bringing the state’s documented totals to 2,161,045 infections and 30,632 fatalities.

According to the dashboard, 29% of reported tests came back positive for the week starting July 3, the state’s highest rate since January.

State and federal officials have been emphasizing the importance of vaccines in their recent messaging as case numbers have climbed.

“If you want to just be done with COVID-19, I’m right there with you,” Herrington said. “But the fact remains that COVID-19 is still active and there are things we can all do to reduce our risk. That starts with taking advantage of safe and widely available vaccines and booster doses that continue proving their ability to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the U.S. has seen a doubling in the number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 since April, reflecting the spread of the new subvariants, though deaths remain steady around 300 per day.

“Currently, many Americans are under-vaccinated, meaning they are not up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines,” said Dr. Rochelle “Staying up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines provides the best protection against severe outcomes.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said while the new variants are concerning, with boosters, indoor masking and treatments the country has the tools to keep them from being disruptive.

“We should not let it disrupt our lives,” he said, “but we cannot deny that it is a reality that we need to deal with.”

He added that even if someone recently had COVID-19, they should get a booster.

“Immunity wanes, so it is critical to stay up to date with COVID 19 vaccines,” he said.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 coordinator, said people who are eligible for a booster but haven’t received one shouldn’t wait for forthcoming vaccines targeted at the omicron strain in addition to the original form of the coronavirus. The U.S. has ordered 105 million of those updated shots, which studies show provide better protection against omicron variants, but they won’t be available until the fall.

“Let me be clear, if you get vaccinated today, you’re not going to be ineligible to get the variants specific vaccine, as we get into the later part of fall and winter,” Jha said. “So, this is not a tradeoff, we’ve got plenty. It’s a great way to protect yourself.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Highly transmissible COVID subvariant makes up more than half of Arizona’s new cases