Novant: Hospitalizations rising as new variant pushes COVID case numbers up

CHARLOTTE — We are far from done with the COVID-19 pandemic -- A new variant, BA.5, is pushing case counts back up once again.

Channel 9’s DaShawn Brown spoke to Novant Health doctors Tuesday, who said it’s difficult to truly gauge how widespread the cases are.

Dr. David Priest, the chief safety, quality and epidemiology officer, said though Novant doesn’t have exact numbers given how many people are using at-home tests, they do know there is a lot of COVID in the community right now. Hospitalizations are an indicator of that fact -- they have gone up 20% in the last two weeks nationally.

More than half the cases in the country are from COVID subvariant BA.5. Dr. Priest said the variant isn’t causing more ICU admissions or serious illnesses, but it is very contagious. It might even rival the measles, which is often considered the most contagious virus in the world.

BA.5 is blamed for 78% of new infections last week, which is an increase of 69% from the week before that, according to the CDC.

So what does that mean for you?

Dr. Priest says people should strongly consider putting masks on indoors and in public places. If you’re eligible for a booster, go ahead and get one, he said. That could be even more important now -- Data shows any immunity you might’ve built from a COVID infection earlier in the year might not work against BA.5.

“This might leave some people questioning the value of vaccines or boosters and, although it will not provide complete protection against getting a case of BA.5, COVID vaccines as currently constructed will still give you enough of an immune response to reduce your risk of severe illness,” Dr. Priest said.

Right now, several vaccine makers are working on a booster shot to help protect against some of the latest variants, including BA.5, that could be ready by fall. But Dr. Priest suggested people don’t wait for that, especially if it means maximizing their protection through the rest of the summer.

(WATCH BELOW: Cooper signs NC budget; COVID-19 emergency to end Aug. 15)

Gov. Roy Cooper is reminding North Carolinians to stay up to date on vaccines and boosters. He also said in a news release that people should have a supply of tests and seek treatment if they test positive.

“While COVID variants continue to infect people, we have the tools to protect ourselves from the most serious effects of this virus,” Cooper said in a news release. “Get vaccinated and boosted, wear a mask indoors in crowds if you believe you need better protection and if you become infected, talk with a health professional quickly about effective treatments like Paxlovid. Cases are on the rise with this latest BA.5 variant so I encourage all North Carolinians to know their risk and take steps to protect themselves.”

The governor’s office released the following recommendations:

  • Get your booster if you haven’t yet and by getting your second booster if you’re eligible.
  • Have a supply of at-home tests on hand. Stop the spread by testing more often and taking precautions if you are positive.
  • Free at-home tests are available from the federal government and community sites and your insurance will cover eight free at-home tests per person per month. Find other testing locations and ways to receive at home tests at covid19.ncdhhs.gov/FindTests .
  • Have a plan on how to seek treatment if you test positive. Find out now where treatment options are near you: covid19.ncdhhs.gov/FindTreatment.
  • Add a layer of protection by wearing a mask in crowded indoor settings or if you are at high risk for serious COVID-19 complications.
  • Increase the ventilation of indoor spaces by opening windows.

NCDHHS has made access to at-home tests at Community Access Points in all counties where people can pick up free at-home tests. More info at covid19.ncdhhs.gov/FindTests.

Officials with the governor’s office also released the following information: “If you test positive for COVID-19, treatment is available, especially for high-risk people who are likely to get very sick. Antiviral pills like Paxlovid and Molnupiravir should be taken within five days of symptoms beginning. The monoclonal antibody bebtelovimab is less effective against this variant, and the supply is limited. These treatments must be prescribed by a medical professional. More information on treatment, including Test to Treat locations, is available on the NCDHHS website.”

For more information on COVID-19 trends in the state, visit covid19.ncdhhs.gov/dashboard.