What you need to know if the Omicron BA.5 subvariant is pushing the cases

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On Wednesday, Hamilton public health reported COVID transmission was increasing for the first time since April.

Ontario residents are being told to keep up to date with their COVID shots as a summer wave powered by the Omicron BA.5 subvariant has likely begun.

It’s a particularly important message in Hamilton, where uptake of boosters has been sluggish.

“The third dose of vaccine is crucial to protect against serious illness,” explained a advisory Wednesday from Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.

His message to the public provides a guide to what Ontario residents need to know about the seventh wave of COVID-19.

Has a new wave started?

The science table on Wednesday declared a likely new wave. On the same day, Hamilton Public Health reported that COVID transmission had increased for the first time since April.

Both envisage a range of measures, including increasing samples of sewage with proven COVID-19.

The number of positive tests in the province is over 10 percent for the first time since May. For Hamilton, it rose from six percent on June 16 to an average of almost nine percent on June 30.

About 80 percent of public health units are seeing exponential growth in cases. In Hamilton, the average daily new cases had risen to 62 on July 3 from 25 on June 6. The cases are a clear underestimate.

What drives the wave?

Highly contagious Omicron subvariants, especially BA.5, are fueling the summer wave.

“You can be reinfected with BA.5 even if you were recently infected with a previous strain,” reads the science table.

However, it does not cause more serious diseases.

“Current evidence does not suggest that BA.5 is more severe or that it will result in a surge in hospitalizations as large as in previous waves,” the science table said.

What if I get infected?

“Infections can make you uncomfortable and disrupt your family and work life,” the science table reads. “Any infection carries the risk of a long COVID.”

The risk of a serious illness is not higher with BA.5, but it is not zero either. The science table reported the first spike in COVID hospitalizations since May.

“If BA.5 becomes widespread, we may see an increase in deaths among higher-risk groups,” the science table reads.

What about the healthcare system?

“Hospitals are already very tense,” the science table warned. β€œAny surge comes at a time when hospitals are already struggling with staff shortages and record wait times – affecting us all.”

Hamilton’s hospitals had 700 vacancies they were unable to fill as of May and 292 staff self-isolating on Wednesday.

In addition, ward overcrowding and the high number of patients coming into emergency rooms have caused ambulances to wait hours to offload patients, leading to a spike in code zero events in June. Code Zero is when an ambulance or no ambulance is available to respond to emergencies.

Hamilton’s hospitals also have pandemic backlogs they are trying to clear, including nearly 15,000 surgeries as of March.

At the same time, COVID patients continue to be admitted.

“Hospital admissions remain at their highest level since last summer,” the science table reads.

Do I have to wear a mask?

“Resuming wearing a mask in crowded indoor public spaces is a good way to protect yourself until the wave passes,” the science desk explained.

Hamilton Public Health also “strongly recommends wearing a well-fitting mask indoors, especially when it’s crowded.”

The science table suggested a high quality surgical mask, KN95 or N95.

“Airify as much as possible by opening windows and doors,” said the science table. “Choose lower-risk alternatives β€” like enjoying the great weather by hanging out with friends outside instead of inside.”

You can still enjoy summer while reducing your risk of catching COVID, the science table urged.

“Unfortunately, a recent infection may not protect you very well from reinfection with BA.5,” it said. “So as we enter a new wave, it pays to start working again with multiple layers of protection to reduce risk.”

Does a booster make a difference?

“Make sure your vaccinations are up to date,” says the science table. “It offers significant additional protection against serious illnesses.”

Hamilton data shows the amazing difference COVID shots are making. The unvaccinated have a hospitalization rate of 434.1 per 100,000 population, compared to 75.8 for those with three shots. The risk of being admitted to the intensive care unit is 12 times higher for unvaccinated people than for those who have been boosted.

Coverage remains thin, however, with fewer than 50 percent of Hamiltonians aged 18 to 39 being promoted. Coverage for children is even worse, with only 17 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds getting three shots.

“New vaccines targeting new variants could be available this fall, but with a wave starting it makes sense to get the vaccines you’re eligible for now,” the science desk explained. “If you are 60 years or older, or are immunocompromised and have not yet received your 4th dose, now is the time.”

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