Regional COVID-19 map
The CDC’s regional map showing the BA.5 variant’s dominance, in green. Credit: Contributed photo / The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

As travel has picked up for the summer so has COVID-19. Health officials in Connecticut are watching the trends and while hospitalizations remain flat they are seeing an increase in infections this summer, largely because of a new variant – BA.5 – that has been circulating. BA.5 is now the most dominant COVID-19 variant circulating in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Concerns about the new subvariant are growing because the vaccines and boosters don’t protect against it yet and there’s also some concern it could transmit more easily outdoors, which was thought to be a less risky location for transmission of earlier strains.

Dr. Ulysses Wu

“It’s not that vaccines don’t offer protection against these new subvariants, it’s that they just don’t offer enough protection or the protection we’re used to,” Dr. Ulysses Wu, an infectious disease expert at Hartford Healthcare, said Tuesday. He’s optimistic that better protection against the new subvariants will be added to the vaccines by the fall.

Because BA.5 is so different, a person’s immunity earned through a previous infection with other variants does not offer the same protection that it did in the past, according to health officials.

But Wu said they still offer some protection, especially combined with other measures such as masking.

“Masks work, but because this is such a highly infectious variant all it takes is one lapse,” Wu said. He said going out to eat and taking off your mask is all it might take to get infected.

Wu is still encouraging masking indoors. He said it can be uncomfortable at times, but having a tube down your throat because you’ve been hospitalized with the virus is much more uncomfortable.

BA.5 is the most easily transmissible COVID variant to date, able to evade previous immunity and vaccination. Reported symptoms of BA.5 are similar to previous COVID variants: fever, runny nose, coughing, sore throat, headaches, muscle pain, and fatigue. But its prevalence is much harder to track given how many people are taking rapid tests at home, which are not reported to any government agency. Wu said he pays attention to the trends and doesn’t need an absolute number in order to have enough information about the virus.

The trend is still higher than past summers, but hospitalizations remain flat. Using a Mount Everest metaphor, he said that if you’re at the base camp for Everest you’re still pretty high up, and that’s where we are at the moment.

Over the past seven days 4,018 Connecticut residents have tested positive and around 264 people were hospitalized with the virus.

The Connecticut Department of Public Health still has 20 state testing sites where no appointment is necessary, but many have reduced hours of operation.

Chris Boyle, spokesman for the state Department of Public Health, said they can quickly ramp up or down, depending on the spread of the virus.

“The home test kits were a game changer in terms of testing,” Boyle said.

And while testing is still free at those state sponsored sites, the PCR tests at CVS or Walgreens might not be covered.

According to Walgreens, “due to recent changes to the federal eligibility criteria, beginning July 1 patients will be required to verify medical necessity in order to receive no-cost COVID-19 testing, either through their health plan or through a federal program, if uninsured.”

Walgreens says that “medical necessity includes people who are symptomatic, have a high-risk condition, are pregnant, or have had a recent exposure to a confirmed positive COVID-19 case.” Just testing out of a concern about having COVID-19, or if you don’t have symptoms, may no longer be covered.

CVS says that “patients with insurance should not have any out-of-pocket costs for a covered COVID-19 test, but check with your health plan to confirm before scheduling a test. If you have health insurance, you must bring your card with you to the test site.”

Patients can also decide to pay out-of-pocket. At CVS, “the cost for lab testing is $139, which includes $100 for the independent laboratory that processes your test and $39 for your MinuteClinic visit.”

Northeast region COVID-19 data charts
The CDC’s data charts for the northeast region, showing the BA.5 variant’s dominance, in green. Credit: Screengrab / The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention