The latest Omicron SARS-CoV-2 subvariant, which scientists have labeled BA.2.12.1, is on track to become the most virulent strain in the United States currently.
An increase in new cases is being linked to common symptoms related to this highly contagious variant, which may be indistinguishable from other seasonal conditions this spring.
Leading experts say you should take 3 upper respiratory symptoms seriously and test for COVID-19 sooner rather than later.
In this article, you'll learn: Common symptoms associated with the BA.2.12.1 strain; a full list of potential COVID-19 symptoms; Does the latest Omicron subvariant spread faster than others?; And how to prevent infection by the BA.2.12.1 strain.
A new subvariant of the Omicron strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that leads to a COVID-19 diagnosis, has overtaken earlier variations (including "stealth" Omicron) to likely become the most viral variant here in the United States. According to data corralled by officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the viral subvariant — which has yet to earn an informal nickname, but scientists have labeled BA.2.12.1 — has been linked to 43% of total COVID-19 cases in the U.S., which is a major jump from the 7% it was accounting for back in early April.
Government officials are racing to collect new information on how current vaccines stack up in protecting Americans from the spread of BA.2.12.1, alongside its genetic characteristics that sets it apart from other SARS-CoV-2 viruses. This particular subvariant is the most infectious of the Omicron collection of viruses, as the third iteration of Omicron that first began increasing breakthrough COVID-19 cases late last fall.
Susan Huang, M.D., the medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention at UCI Health in Orange County, indicates that current data available to healthcare providers suggest this latest Omicron subvariant is highly contagious. "This variant is about 25% more contagious than the original Omicron variant that entered the U.S. last fall — seemingly accounting for about 40% of current cases," she tells Good Housekeeping.
Dr. Huang adds that hospitalizations have remained low — and it may be because Americans simply aren't aware they're dealing with a bonafide SARS-CoV-2 infection. "It is clear that the disproportionate share of infections are those that are weathered at home," she says. "It is highly anticipated that a more targeted vaccine to current variants will be needed for the fall."
What kind of symptoms does this highly contagious variant present, you may wonder? BA.2.12.1 cases are coming at a time when spring allergies are affecting many Americans, which is why it's crucial to identify potentially misleading symptoms and consider COVID-19 testing sooner. Read on to learn more about the newest Omicron subvariant and its most common symptoms.
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What are common symptoms of BA.2.12.1 COVID-19 illnesses?
COVID-19 cases have been on the rise in the U.S., driven by an uptick in infections caused by the BA.2.12.1 subvariant — most of which may not be diagnosed as early as possible due to a lack of testing, explains Sachin Nagrani, M.D., medical director at care provider Heal. "There's been an increase in the rate of COVID cases in the U.S. recently, currently above 80,000 [new] cases per day," he says, adding that it's dramatically less than the 800,000+ cases per day noted at the start of 2022. "We have also crossed the grim milestone of 1 million American lives lost to COVID."
Both experts and public health officers seem to have noted that the BA.2.12.1 variant may be triggering mild breakthrough cases that don't prompt sick individuals to think about signing up for a COVID-19 test. Early infection symptoms that are commonly being noted with these particular infections may have something to do with that, explains Dr. Huang.
"Initial symptoms appear to be related to a scratchy or sore throat, often quite mild," she says. "Other early symptoms are sneezing, or a runny nose — both of these often cause infected individuals to think they are suffering from allergies or a mild cold, which they hope is not COVID."
Because these symptoms can easily be mistaken for a common cold, especially during a time when travel restrictions are being lifted, many choose not to seek out a COVID-19 test initially — until other symptoms present later down the road. This is likely how BA.2.12.1 is spreading quite rapidly; in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut alone, the viral subvariant is tied to upwards of 70% of new infections alone, per recent reports.
Does this Omicron subvariant spread faster than others?
It does indeed seem that BA.2.12.1 is more easily transmissible than earlier strains of Omicron SARS-CoV-2, as experts have established it is about 25% more transmissible than "stealth" Omicron, or about 75% more transmissible than original Omicron strains that impacted the 2021 winter holiday season.
Risk for severe illness stemming from this particular subvariant applies to those who have yet to be vaccinated against COVID-19, or those who have had an incomplete vaccination series — as well as those who have yet to receive a recommended third booster vaccine. Those who are fully up-to-date on their shots are at less risk of mild infection, Dr. Huang stresses; but they are not impervious to getting sick, even if it's a second COVID-19 sickness.
"Preliminary data from studies in Beijing and South Africa have signaled what is expected; new variants and subvariants may be more likely to cause reinfection in an individual who was previously infected with an old variant," Dr. Nagrani explains. "The vaccines will most likely remain effective with BA.2.12.1, as they were intended to prevent severe COVID and hospitalization — but not for preventing infection [outright]."
What are all potential symptoms of COVID-19?
Most reports indicate that even the latest Omicron subvariant doesn't lead to severe symptoms in breakthrough cases, nor a spike in hospitalizations or death outright.
But it's also crucial to remember that no two COVID-19 illnesses are the same; it's entirely possible that an infection triggered by BA.2.12.1 may lead to early upper respiratory symptoms that resemble a cold or reaction to allergies, or it may simply present any of the other known COVID-19 symptoms entirely (including fatigue alone!). Any combination, and varying levels of severity, of the following symptoms may be triggered by an Omicron SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Here's a full list of known, potential COVID-19 symptoms for any individual, according to the CDC:
Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing
Fever or chills
Fatigue or body aches
New loss of taste or smell
Congestion, runny nose
Nausea or vomiting
How to prevent infection by the BA.2.12.1 subvariant:
The best way to prevent getting sick is to ensure you're up-to-date on your COVID vaccinations, including any recommended boosters (even if that means seeking out another vaccine brand manufacturer).
"If you are eligible for the additional booster this spring, please get it to receive additional protection against both mild and severe disease," Dr. Huang advises. "You will still be eligible for the upcoming fall booster that will have modifications to improve its effect against newer variants."
Individuals over the age of 50 — or those considered to be clinically immunocompromised — are encouraged to seek out a second booster dose of an mRNA vaccine now to keep infection risks low.
Masks are also still an important part of COVID-19 prevention; especially if you or someone you live with is considered high risk for severe complications, or are currently at risk for severe disease. "Masking is also important if you have something crucial on your schedule; a vacation, a graduation, or even a medical procedure where you need to be healthy for that important activity," Dr. Huang adds. "Be mindful of your symptoms and test early for COVID so that you can take steps to protect others from infection, especially as it relates to events like these."
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