COVID Hospitalization Rate in Boston Up 23% Over Past 2 Weeks as BA.5 Surge Continues

BA.5 more easily transmits and escapes immunity, leading many to call it the "worst version" of omicron yet

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Boston's COVID hospitalization rate is up 23% over the past two weeks as the highly-contagious BA.5 omicron subvariant continues to spread across the region.

The latest data from Boston's COVID dashboard shows that hospitalizations increased by 23.3% over the past 14 days, although things have begun to stabilize a bit over the past week.



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This comes as the BA.5 continues its stranglehold on New England. The variant is now responsible for 81.4% of the region's cases, followed by BA.4 at 12.6%, BA.2.12.1 at 5.7% and BA.2 at 0.2%.

Source: CDC

While no evidence indicates that BA.5 causes more severe illness from COVID than other strains, people who have never been vaccinated, and even fully vaccinated and boosted people who were last dosed in 2021, are seeing higher hospitalization rates from COVID than in recent months. 

But there are some positive signs as well. The 7-day average of new COVID cases in Boston is starting to decline somewhat -- 0.8% over the past 14 days and 2.8% over the past seven. The city's wastewater COVID data is also on the downturn, having decreased by 26.7% over the past 14 days and 23.3% over the past seven.

"We really haven't seen a huge spike. We're seeing a relatively stable, steady state level of virus both in terms of the amount of virus and wastewater and the numbers of cases that are being reported and even the numbers of hospitalizations," Daniel Kuritzkes of Brigham and Women's Hospital said. "So we're not seeing a repeat of the massive spike that we saw in January and February with BA.1 and BA.2. And I think that reflects the fact that so many people now have some form of immunity, whether it is immunity due to vaccination, immunity due to prior infection or a combination of the two. And that's limiting the amount of severe disease, and to some extent, perhaps, the amount of transmission even though lots of people continue to get infected."

Boston issued a new COVID warning two weeks ago, urging people to start wearing masks again in crowded indoor spaces and telling people to gather outside and choose outdoor events when possible. One example of an indoor crowded space is MBTA trains and other modes of public transportation.

Right now, the COVID positivity rate in Boston is hovering around 9%. The threshold for when people should be taking precautions is 5%, and the goal is 4% or lower.


So what does this all mean, and how worried should you be? Well, that depends. When was your last vaccine dose?

Only one therapeutic antibody retains full potency against the BA.5 and BA.4 strain, Columbia researchers say, and a separate recent, non-peer-reviewed study found past omicron infection to be less than 80% effective at stopping BA.5.

Moreover, a recent Italian review of COVID studies found that boosters are less than 20% effective in preventing omicron-related infections after six months.

So if you haven't been boosted this year, or gotten a second booster and you're eligible, experts say now is the time to get those doses. And if you haven't gotten an initial dose yet, the message is better late than never.

A new round of omicron-specific vaccines is expected this fall, and those who get vaccine boosters now will still be eligible to receive those shots when approved. But that could be months out. And while case rates affiliated with this sixth pandemic wave are slowing, many are bracing for what could come next.

"I had been feeling this way for a while, and I'm sure others have too, but it really hit me with BA.5 that we need to figure out how we're living with this virus," said Dr. Benjamin Linas of Boston Medical Center. "The idea that we can strategically mask and vaccinate and try to end the pandemic and then come forth on a happy day when we're not going to take off our masks and celebrate, it's not going to happen. It's not realistic. We're seeing this virus come and go and a series of waves that will continue. No one can exactly predict when they will happen. So I think that's the big point that I've taken. I've been thinking a lot about what does it mean to live with this virus? And how do we find the right balance between mitigating transmission and living our lives?"

Learn more about COVID vaccination, boosting and treatment options here.

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