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New omicron subvariants detected in Travis County

A health care worker fills a syringe with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
Michael Minasi
Austin-Travis County's health authority is urging people to stay up to date on their vaccinations as COVID-19 cases rise.

Austin Public Health confirmed two new omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, were detected in six samples taken in and around Travis County in May.

While more data is needed to determine if the new subvariants produce more severe symptoms, they have been found abroad to be more highly transmissible than the predominant BA.2 subvariant, said Dr. Desmar Walkes, the Austin-Travis County health authority.

“It’s really important that people stay up to date on their vaccinations and get those booster shots,” Walkes said.

Walkes said these new variants can evade immunity, meaning even those who have had COVID-19 before could get it again. Those with waning immunity who are due for a booster shot could also get a mild case of COVID-19, she said.

The number of reported COVID-19 cases in the area has been steadily rising again, but the new variants may not be the cause of that. Walkes said that the new variants haven’t been detected in wastewater sampling. However, that’s a lagging indicator of current area infections. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the new variants account for about 6% of current cases nationwide.

Walkes said the rise in local cases can likely be attributed, in part, to changes in behavior.

“We’ve started to let our guard down,” Walkes said. “We’ve started to have more multigenerational gatherings for graduations and celebrations and travel. Those things are impacting what we’re seeing in our case numbers.”

In addition to getting vaccinated and boosted, Walkes recommended getting tested before and after gatherings and travel, wearing a mask in public settings where you don’t know the vaccination or health status of people around you, and staying home if you feel sick.

The COVID-19 Community Level for Travis County is currently “low.” The CDC created this indicator to guide prevention measures based on local county data. It considers how many hospital beds are being used, hospital admissions and the total number of new COVID-19 cases.

While Travis County has been at the “low” level for a while, the number of cases per 100,000 residents has risen to about 175. When it hits 200, the community level goes to “medium.” At that level, the CDC urges people who are immunocompromised or at a high risk of severe disease to talk to their health care provider about additional precautions, like masking and testing.

“We do know that our herd immunity right now is pretty good in that we’ve got people getting sick, but they're getting very mild illness,” Walkes said. “Our hospital numbers have been holding steady for several weeks now. The real trick is now for us, as a community, to remember those non-pharmaceutical measures that people are fatigued by, but they work.”

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Sangita Menon is a general assignment reporter for KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @sangitamenon.
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