County public health officer calls new subvariant ‘sneakier’
After a downward trend in March in COVID-19 cases countywide, there was hope that the pandemic was transitioning into an endemic.
However, in recent weeks, the number of cases has slowly started to rise again in both Santa Barbara County and across the nation.
Two primary reasons are changes in immunity and behavior, according to Dr. Henning Ansorg of the Santa Barbara County Public Health.
He explained that part of the problem is a sneaky subvariant of COVID-19.
“The virus itself is mutating at a very rapid pace,” the public health officer told the News-Press Wednesday. “The omicron variant started around Christmas time in California, and by March the numbers went down really rapidly.
“The new subvariant took over omicron,” he continued. “The new subvariant of omicron is known as BA.2.12.1. Over 50% of California cases are the omicron subvariant BA.2.12.1. The new version of the virus is sneakier, and it can bypass previous immunity.
“Now we are seeing a new shift is happening toward the new subvariant, which is more capable of bypassing the immune system and reinfecting people,” Dr. Ansortg said.
“Immunity is not lasting as long as we were hoping at the beginning,” Dr. Ansorg said.
“The virus at the beginning of 2020 is a very different virus than the one we have now. The vaccine was developed for the original virus. The vaccine is very good at reducing hospitalization. Omicron and its variants do not make people as sick. “Hospitalization is much lower than previous variants,” said Dr. Ansorg. “Even though we are seeing an uptick, especially in the Bay Area and Southern California, we don’t see a significant uptick in hospitalization.”
Behavioral changes is another contributing factor in the recent uptick, Dr. Ansorg said. “Mask mandates went away in the spring, and people are gathering indoors. Outbreaks are happening mainly in indoor settings.”
Dr. Ansorg addressed steps that the general public can take to help bring down the number of COVID cases.
“We still have a lot of the virus going around in our communities. We still strongly recommend wearing masks in public indoor settings,” he said. “If you are at an indoor event with poor ventilation, you should wear a mask. Wear high quality masks that protect the person wearing the mask. It is also very important especially for those over 65 to be fully vaccinated and boosted.”
Dr. Ansorg emphasized the importance of assessing individual risk, if you catch the virus. He explained that includes considering factors such as age, health, lifestyle and any medication you might take.
“Some people have a weakened immune system due to medications suppressing their immune system. Those at the highest risk should be most cautious and they usually are,” said Dr. Ansorg.
“If someone catches the virus or is reinfected, we have a new medicine commonly known as Paxlovid, an antiviral medicine that represses the virus,” said Dr. Ansorg. “If you are experiencing COVID symptoms, get tested. If you test positive your primary care physician can prescribe the medication for you.”
The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department also has two locations where people can get tested and receive medication on-site if they test positive. One location is Direct Relief at 6100 Wallace Becknell Road, Goleta. The other location is at Fairpark at 937 S. Thornburg St. Santa Maria.