AUSTIN (KXAN) — As COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations trend upward again in Texas, health leaders are pointing to the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants as the reason for the uptick. Here’s what we know about the recent mutations of the virus:

Severity of BA.4 and BA.5

Early research shows the omicron subvariants may cause more severe disease than the original strain of omicron particularly for people who are unvaccinated or have no prior immunity, Austin health leaders said. It may also cause more severe long-term illness.

“These two new subvariants that we’re seeing in BA.4 and BA.5 seem to be causing more disease in the lung tissue than the omicron variant that we had circulating in the January, February timeframe,” Dr. Desmar Walkes, the Austin-Travis County health authority, said.

Walkes said if BA.4 and BA.5 do indeed end up being more severe, it could also mean more people experience long COVID, a term health leaders are using to describe having prolonged symptoms, like fatigue and brain fog.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ogechika Alozie with the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force says he’s seeing more mild symptoms in his patients who likely have BA.4 and BA.5, especially for people with immunity through vaccination or previous infection.

“It’s the scratchy throat, the rhinitis, that runny nose, itchy eyes, a general feeling of unwell, what we’d call malaise or lethargy,” Alozie said.

Transmissibility of BA.4 and BA.5

The research on the transmissibility of BA.4 and BA.5 is in the early stages too. Health leaders do agree that being up to date on vaccines is the best way to protect against any variant or subvariant.

“Omicron subvariants BA.4 & BA.5 are even more mutated than the original Omicron, which means that our immune systems are having a harder time recognizing these new subvariants, regardless of whether we’ve previously been vaccinated or infected,” tweeted Celine Gounder, an infectious disease expert at New York University. 

Health leaders have said even if you got the original omicron variant in late 2021, or early 2022, you are still susceptible to getting BA.4 and BA.5. But Alozie said the body’s immune system also deserves credit where it’s due.

“We know that whether it’s vaccine driven immunity, or virus driven immunity, that your antibodies that protect you from some of those initial symptoms, they seem to wane after 10 to 12 weeks anyway. And that’s natural, right?,” he explained. “You can’t run around with a host of antibodies forever, or your blood would be thick and chock full of different antibodies.”

Symptoms of BA.4 and BA.5

While some are experiencing more severe disease with BA.4 and BA.5, the symptoms appear to be similar to those of omicron. Symptoms include:

  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Congestion
  • Muscle pain
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Cough

Is COVID-19 spreading in Texas?

As of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Thursday update, 42% of Texas’ population live in a county rated “high risk.” Corpus Christi, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio are all considered at high risk.

Each week since Feb. 24, the CDC assigns a “COVID-19 Community Level” to each county nationwide based on how the virus is impacting local populations.

Low, medium and high-risk categories are determined based on three factors: number of new cases in the past seven days, new hospital admissions in the past seven days, and percent of staffed hospital beds being used by COVID-19 patients.

In KXAN’s viewing area: Blanco, Lampasas and Milam Counties were all upgraded to high risk. Meanwhile, Gillespie, Lee and Mason Counties were upgraded from low to medium risk, joining Bastrop, Burnet, Caldwell, Hays, Llano, Travis and Williamson Counties.

You can read more about current CDC levels in Texas in this story.

What do the CDC’s community levels mean?

The CDC has the following recommendations for people depending on which COVID-19 Community Level their county is in:

Low Risk

  • Stay up-to-date with COVID vaccines
  • Get tested if you have symptoms

Medium Risk

  • Same precautions as low risk and:
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about whether you should wear a mask and take other precautions if you are at high risk for severe illness

High Risk

  • Same precautions as medium risk and:
  • Wear a mask indoors in public
  • Additional precautions may be needed for people at high risk for severe illness

You can find the community risk level in your county using the CDC’s tool below:

How to prevent getting BA.4 and BA.5

The same applies to BA.4 and BA.5 as it has to previous surges of COVID-19. The best ways to protect yourself including staying up to date on vaccinations, wearing a mask, avoiding large gatherings (particularly indoors) and washing your hands.

If you have symptoms of COVID-19, stay home and get tested. You can find testing locations in Austin here.