COVID: Omicron variant, BA.5 symptoms and more updates on the pandemic – USA TODAY

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Coronavirus cases are rising in the U.S. – again. 
Eighteen states reported more cases in the week of June 30-July 7 than in the week before, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.
That has also led to a rise in hospitalizations, with hospitals in 40 states reporting more COVID-19 patients than a week earlier. Thirty-eight states had more patients in intensive care beds, and 17 states reported more deaths than a week earlier.
Although the increase in cases doesn’t appear to approach the meteoric levels of previous waves, health experts say what’s being recorded is likely an undercount because of underreported test results. 
Here’s everything to know about the coronavirus and the state of the pandemic. 
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports about 66% of eligible people living in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and only about 47% have gotten at least one booster.
In June, federal authorities authorized a COVID-19 vaccine for children as young as 6 months. The CDC has yet to report vaccination rates for that population, but polling data from April found only 18% of parents said they would vaccinate their younger children right away, 27% said they definitely wouldn’t, and 38% said they’d wait and see. 
Looking at vaccination rates among the next age group, 5 to 11 years, health experts worry vaccine uptake among children may be slow. As of June 29, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported only 29% of 5- to 11-year-olds received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
But experts advise parents to jump on these lifesaving vaccines sooner rather than later. A modeling study published in JAMA Network Open this week found vaccines may have prevented about 235,000 COVID-related deaths among people over 18 from Dec. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021.
“If you want your child fully protected in the fall … I wouldn’t wait,” said Richard Besser, a pediatrician and president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
CDC data shows the omicron subvariant BA.5 has become the dominant strain in the country, making up more than 54% of sequenced COVID-19 cases.
The next most-dominant subvariant is BA.2.12.1, which makes up about 27% of sequenced cases, followed by BA.4 at about 17%.
Although it has been a slow rise since the winter wave, health experts say the proportion of subvariants among new cases continues to increase with every week.
“These subvariants have been with us for the past two months already,” said David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s a relatively slow increase that we’ve seen relative to the original omicron wave, which happened over the course of the month.”
Health experts say symptoms of BA.4 and BA.5 align closely with symptoms from other variants, including cough, fatigue, headache and muscle pains. A loss of taste and smell, however, is becoming less common.
Illness also seems to be less severe, with hospitalizations and deaths remaining somewhat steady since the omicron wave. But experts say that may be a result of Americans’ hybrid immunity from vaccination and previous infection.
Dowdy says transmission may be higher than at any other point in the pandemic – except during the winter’s omicron wave – but rates of hospitalizations and deaths have remained comparable to last summer.
Researchers at the National Cancer Institute found COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in the U.S. between March 2020 and October 2021, according to an analysis of national death certificate data published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine, accounting for about 350,000 deaths.
At the height of this 20-month period in January 2021, the U.S. reported more than 4,000 deaths a day. The country is now reporting 200 to 400 deaths a day, according to Johns Hopkins and CDC data.
Some experts expect another increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the fall, but Dowdy says there’s a chance case rates could look similar to what they are now.
“It seems like right now we’re at a high hum,” he said. “In the past, what has caused waves to subside has been our immunity to the virus, so I think it’s possible that our immunity will have a downward effect,” or keep cases down.
Aubree Gordon, associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, says the worst of COVID-19 may finally be behind us, barring the emergence of any new variants.
Experts say there have been no signs of a new variant. A study published in Nature this week found wastewater-based surveillance can detect emerging variants of concern up to two weeks earlier than clinical sequencing.
“Hopefully we will see that severity (of disease) continue to decrease and the rate of infections and number of cases will come down as well,” Gordon said. “We’re at the point in the U.S. where it is quite likely that the worst is over.”
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT. 
Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

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