AUSTIN (KXAN) — After weeks of low COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations, those metrics are on the rise again in Austin-Travis County.
On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention bumped the COVID-19 risk level in Travis and Hays counties to “medium.” The risk levels are low, medium and high and are determined based on three factors: the number of new cases in the past seven days, new hospital admissions in the past seven days, and the percent of staffed hospital beds being used by COVID-19 patients.
KXAN’s Grace Reader spoke with Anass Bouchnita, a postdoctoral fellow with the UT at Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, about what we can expect locally moving forward. The following transcript has been edited for length purposes.
Reader: We’ve been in this lovely summer lull where folks are starting to get back to a normal routine. As far as the data shows right now, where are we at with those COVID numbers?
Bouchnita: We have seen a few months where the numbers were very low, but in the last two weeks the number of cases and hospital admissions are starting to rise again. Here in Austin, it seems that the numbers keep raising and probably will keep raising for a few weeks or months.
Reader: Last year, at the end of summer, we also had a bit of a peak, but it came later. Where are we at comparatively?
Bouchnita: There are a couple of factors: At the moment, there are different omicron subvariants competing with each other and we have new, more aggressive variants, BA.4 and BA.5, that are starting to gain ground. We expect that the transmissibility of the virus as a whole will increase because these variants can escape prior immunity, but this is not the only factor. We have school closures and this is good news because the school closures will also help reduce the transmissibility and transmission in the community.
Reader: It also sounds like the FDA might finally give the green flag to the kids under five to get vaccinated. What role will that play?
Bouchnita: I think this is very beneficial because the more immunity we have in the population, the lesser the chances for the virus to be spreading. I think that this will have a very positive impact together with the authorization of second boosters. We hope that these two will increase immunity and I think the timing of these decisions is very important because we need more immunity to contain this new surge.
Reader: Talk a little bit about that waning immunity.
Bouchnita: It’s been four or five months after the first omicron wave, where we had so many infections, and so we expect that there will be many people losing immunity at a rapid speed. In this moment, where we have BA.4 and BA.5 growing, and we also have waning immunity, I think it’s the best moment to be up-to-date with vaccination. I think it’s very important for people to be boosted, and of course we shouldn’t forget the other arsenal that we have.
Reader: What are y’all’s models showing as far as the next few weeks and months? What can people expect moving forward?
Bouchnita: To be honest, we are still working on this particular question and we expect to release a report in the next few weeks, but at the moment what we can say is that it really depends on each location. We still have some uncertainties regarding the properties of the new variants, BA.4 and BA.5.
In the case where these two variants can escape prior immunity, then we expect that the numbers will keep raising until fall and we will have a very significant wave, but it will not be as sharp as the first omicron wave. On the other hand, if there is good cross protection between BA.4, BA.5 and prior immunity, we will still have the increase in cases which will be driven by the waning of immunity, but it will come very slow and will give us time to anticipate and prepare.
Reader: As we have transitioned, as the city of Austin, to those low, medium and high CDC levels, do you all have any indication when it might be that we go from that medium level to that high level?
Bouchnita: I can’t give you any definitive numbers or any accurate prediction because, as I said, it really depends on these uncertainties that we are having now, but we expect this to not be very soon. We think that this will take time and that this wave will be more gradual because of the level of immunity that we have. This will also depend on the behavior of people and how many boosters are being administered in the next weeks.
Reader: What is it that we do know about BA.4 and BA.5? And what specifically are you all looking to figure out that you don’t know right now?
Bouchnita: We have some clinical studies showing that BA.4 and BA.5 can escape immunity and so people who have been infected with some omicron subvariants will have significant chance to be reinfected with BA.4 and BA.5. We know that they are more transmissible because they are naturally gaining ground over BA.12 and BA.2 and BA.1, but we don’t know by how much.
The other factor is the pathogenicity of this variant. So there are some reports suggesting that these variants are maybe more severe than the previous subvariant. We think that this can be a determining factor in increasing hospitalizations and mortality.
Reader: What do people need to do moving forward?
Bouchnita: We know what works against COVID. We know that the boosters work very well against all variants, and all the omicron subvariants. And if they can’t, we know that this is good timing to go back to wearing face masks and to go back to physical distancing.
Reader: Is there anything else you would like to say, add, think people should know right now?
Bouchnita: I myself want to enjoy summer, but I think it’s very important to think about the vulnerable people out there who can be in serious danger if they catch COVID. I think it’s very important to get boosted, get vaccinated, give physical distance, get tested and wear face masks.