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Out of the woods from COVID-19? Here are 10 reasons for added vigilance

Much as we wish it weren’t true, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that an omicron subvariant dubbed BA.5 is rapidly spreading in Massachusetts and nationwide.

The figures remain horrific: about 100,000 daily cases reported officially in the U.S., with 33,000 COVID patients in hospitals on a typical day (nearly 4,000 in intensive care) as well as 300 to 400 daily deaths. The death toll is much lower than the January 2021 peak of 3,300 but how callous — and careless — must we be to discount hundreds of deaths a day?

Some hopeful indicators: Daily case totals in Berkshire County are fairly low and stable, though undercounted because most home tests are not reported to the state. Hospitalizations are limited, and deaths are in the single digits weekly.

Health and safety protocols have eased, though some residents and visitors are choosing to mask at public indoor spaces.

Here are 10 takeaways, based on reports from scientists:

1. Cases may be increasing in Massachusetts because BA.5 spreads so easily and escapes prior immunity, according to Matthew Fox, a professor of epidemiology and global health at the Boston University School of Public Health. Fox urged people to watch for symptoms, go for tests as needed and take more precautions. Fox also emphasized the importance of vaccinations and boosting. “Don’t panic, just prepare,” he said.

2. Some medical teams are warning that BA.5 is more severe, based on reports of rising hospitalizations in Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Israel. The variant is now dominant in the U.S. and Europe.

3. Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said that what other countries have experienced is sending worrisome signals of case surges at the same time as new variants arrive.

4. While many of us are intent on putting the pandemic into the past, some people, especially with risk factors, feel slighted by the drive for normalcy.

5. The CDC’s latest update shows 33 percent of Americans live in high-risk counties, mostly outside the Northeast. “One of my favorite lines from somebody at the CDC was, ‘You don’t need to count the raindrops to know how hard it’s raining,’” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC. In those counties, the government agency recommends masking indoors in public.

6. Despite the official daily estimate of 100,000 new cases nationwide, “that’s not really a reflection of the total amount of virus circulating in the communities,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, part of the Bloomberg School of Public Health. His “back of the envelope” estimate is about one million cases per day. Others project an actual total ranging from 300,000 to 500,000 — every day.

7. Here’s the most concerning statistic: More than half of vaccinated Americans have not received a booster. Three-quarters of those eligible for a second booster have avoided the shot.

8. A new study shows reinfections increase chances of new “long COVID” health impacts. The report, based on health records of more than 5.6 million Veterans Administration patients, indicates two or more confirmed infections double the risk of dying and triple the chances of hospitalization.

9. For the coming cold-weather season, updated vaccine formulas are expected to be available, starting in October, to protect people from the ultra-contagious omicron subvariants, especially BA.5. “We’re hoping that we can convince people to go get that booster,” said Dr. Peter Marks, head of the vaccine office at the Food and Drug Administration. That would strengthen their protection since immunity starts to wane four to six months after a shot.

10. Scientists are growing more confident that updated boosters offer strong protection against many different versions of the virus. This winter’s virus is expected to be a descendant of omicron.

The bottom line: Officially, nearly a quarter of Berkshire County residents have been infected, though that’s surely an undercount. I know many who have caught COVID-19 for a second time, especially if they haven’t taken the boosters. Some recent cases have not been mild.

We’re all letting our guard down, and any notion that COVID-19 is becoming endemic — meaning we can live with it because it’s like influenza or a severe cold — is premature. Want to get back to normal? We all do. But the virus has other ideas, and the plague is still among us.

Material from The New York Times, CNN and the Boston Globe was included in this commentary. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com.

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