The highly contagious omicron subvariant BA.2 is now the dominant coronavirus strain around the world. Health officials have known about it since November, but they’re still learning about how it acts and how sick people infected with it are likely to get.
With that in mind, here’s what the newest subvariant means for you and your family, as well as the signs you should keep an eye out for now.
BA.2 often presents similarly to a bad cold
“So far what we’re seeing is really similar to the original omicron variant in terms of symptoms and in terms of severity,” said Dr. Erica Johnson, an internal medicine physician at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore who chairs the Infectious Disease Board of the American Board of Internal Medicine.
So, like the original omicron strain (BA.1), the primary symptoms of a mild BA.2 infection are a cough, fever, fatigue and possible loss of taste or smell. A runny nose, gastrointestinal issues, headache and a skin rash are other common signs and symptoms. Those are pretty similar to what people experience with a cold or other seasonal viruses.
Dr. Jennifer Lighter, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health in New York, did note that with the original omicron strain, she saw more patients who seemed to present with upper respiratory symptoms (coughing, runny nose and sore throats) than with previous strains, which were more likely to cause lower respiratory symptoms (like a deep cough or shortness of breath). According to Lighter, BA.2 also seems to target the upper respiratory tract more like the original omicron strain did ― but again, a lot of that is just anecdotal at this point.
And of course, it is possible to get really sick from BA.2. People should continue to be on the lookout for emergency warning signs, like persistent pain or chest pressure and difficulty breathing.
That said, the real-world evidence that’s available so far suggests BA.2, like BA.1, tends to cause less severe illness. Some of that has to do with vaccination, which significantly decreases the odds of getting really sick. (About 65% of the total U.S. population is now fully vaccinated.)
So health officials are cautiously optimistic. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, has predicted that while the new omicron subvariant may cause a jump in cases here in the U.S., hospitalizations aren’t likely to soar. He pointed to the U.K., which recently experienced a surge in cases, but not a surge in severe illness.
But remember: Even ‘mild’ cases can feel pretty bad.
When doctors use the term “mild” to describe illness, they are basically saying it wasn’t serious enough that the infected person required hospitalization. So you could be experiencing “mild” symptoms of BA.2 that render you incapable of doing much of anything for days or weeks. You could feel pretty terrible, really. There’s also a chance that even a mild case of COVID-19 can lead to long COVID.
If you can — even if you feel really crummy — you’ve still got what most doctors would consider a “mild” case.
If you experience any symptoms, you should test — even if you’ve already had COVID.
While health officials are hopeful we’re not on the cusp of a surge of serious illness, it is still important to take a COVID-19 test if you have any symptoms. That is true even if you are already vaccinated and boosted, and even if you recently recovered from COVID-19. It is unlikely that you would get BA.1 and BA.2 in short succession (experts tend to think you’re well protected for at least 90 days), but reinfection can happen.
“If you have symptoms, you should test,” Lighter urged. “If you’re going to have an intimate dinner with someone who is significantly immune compromised, it’s a good idea to test before if it’s prevalent in your region. It’s all about gauging the risk.”
With BA.2 circulating, it is more important than ever to stay up to date on vaccines.
Again, one of the reasons why experts are hopeful that BA.2 won’t cause a huge spike in hospitalizations and deaths — even as most places around the country have dropped mask mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions — is because so many people are now vaccinated.
It is important to stay on top of recommendations, because they have been changing. This week, for example, the Food and Drug Administration authorized a second booster for adults 50 and older. Some doctors and researchers believe kids age 5 to 11 might need a booster soon, too. So make sure you work with your provider, get up to date on your shots, and pay attention to community transmission levels.
“As long as people follow the current guidance and remain up to date from where they are right now, that’s the best thing they can do,” Johnson said.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.