COVID cases on the rise across Northeast Ohio
COVID-19 cases are on the rise across Northeast Ohio, but although the newest variant is highly contagious, it is not causing a surge in hospitalizations, infectious disease experts said.
Erie, Huron, Lorain, Mahoning, Medina and Trumbull counties have all returned to high levels of community spread of the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That means people should wear a mask indoors in public and on public transportation, get tested if they are exposed or have symptoms, and stay up-to-date on vaccines, the CDC says.
Dr. Keith Armitage, medical director of the Roe Green Center for Travel Medicine & Global Health at University Hospitals, said the increase in cases is caused by the latest COVID-19 variant, known as BA.5.
"It is a derivative of omicron, but there's enough mutations in the spike protein that allows it... 'immune escape' and it's also highly, highly contagious," he said. "And so now it's become a dominant strain."
Case numbers are up across the state. State health officials counted nearly 8,000 more COVID-19 infections last week than the first week in the month.
Wastewater testing, which gives public health officials advanced warning of trends, showed a 100% increase in virus levels in mid-July compared to the last week in June in Cuyahoga, Lorain, Medina, Canton and Warren counties, according to the state's wastewater monitoring network.
Those increases track with the number of infections in Summit County, said Health Commissioner Donna Skoda. The case numbers are likely widely underreported because of the mildness of symptoms and the prevalence of at-home testing, Skoda said.
"We do estimate that our numbers are probably eight times higher than what we're getting reported," she said. "It's pretty high. There is a lot of BA.5 circulating. It's very contagious and therefore folks are getting it."
For now, BA.5 seems to cause milder symptoms, experts said. It is not attacking the lungs, like earlier versions of the disease did, Armitage added. That — coupled with immunity that many people now have because of vaccinations or previous infections — means that the virus is less likely to cause severe disease.
Some people will experience just mild or moderate cold-like symptoms, while some will feel like they have been "kicked in the behind" by the flu, said Armitage.
Hospitalizations are also trending up across the state, although numbers remain low, Ohio Department of Health figures show. Those hospitalizations likely reflect people who are hospitalized for other things, but may also have COVID-19, Armitage said.
"We're not seeing otherwise healthy people, who maybe have some risk factors like hypertension, obesity, diabetes, but are otherwise healthy, coming in on a ventilator," Armitage said.
Those with underlying conditions may head to the hospital, even though their COVID-19 symptoms are mild because the virus exacerbates other symptoms, said Dr. Amy Ray, medical director of infection prevention and regulatory affairs at Metro Health System.
"They may have a mild sore throat or a low-grade fever with their mild COVID, but it's really their wheezing and their shortness of breath and their need for oxygen or respiratory support that brings them in," she said. "We still see occasionally a severe COVID pneumonia, but thankfully that's becoming... less frequent."
The good news is that this variant is very different from the initial versions of the disease, Armitage said.
"The bad news is a lot of us are going to get it, even if we're careful and we're vaccinated," he said.