Health experts weigh rising cases of new sub-variant of COVID in the metro

ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) – More than two years since the pandemic began, cases of COVID-19 are once again on the rise in metro St. Louis.

St. Louis County reported more than a 3 percent increase in cases over a seven-day period, while communities like St. Louis City and Jefferson County are already below the CDC’s high level of community risk.

“We’re seeing an increase in cases,” said Brian Zwiner, public communications officer for the Jefferson County Health Department. “Obviously with BA-4, BA-5, summer travel, things like that, we tend to see increases in cases around that time.”

The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force reported that the seven-day moving average for hospitalizations was 57, up slightly from 53 two weeks ago. Dr. Alex Garza, chief health officer at SSM Health, tells News 4 there is a 25 percent positivity rate in the metro area. That number could be much higher, given that some residents may test at home and not necessarily report their results.

The newest sub-variants, BA-4 and BA-5, are partly to blame for the increasing number of cases.

“It has changes in its protein that allow it to attach to cells much more easily, and so there are things that are intrinsic to the virus that make it more transmissible,” Dr. Garza said. “The other things are that we have very limited public health measures right now. So most people don’t wear a mask. So combine that with a highly transmissible virus and fewer public health responses, that will also increase the spread.”

Sewage surveillance shows that BA-4 and BA-5 now account for 60 to 80 percent of new cases of COVID-19, making them the most dominant strains of the virus in the St. Louis area.

“What we’re seeing is both more infectious and more resistant to the immune system,” said Dr. Nebu Kolenchery, director of communicable disease response at the St. Louis County Department of Public Health. “So that means that you people who have had a previous infection with the vaccine can still be infected with these variants; however, the vaccine is absolutely still effective in preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and death.

Although infectious disease experts are encouraging people to practice social distancing and wear masks at this time, not everyone is alarmed by the latest uptick.

“I had it last year, so I take precautions if necessary, but that doesn’t stop me from doing anything outside at this point, even with the increase,” said Chris Karis, who was visiting the city today. “About two-thirds of Americans are vaccinated right now, and if you’re not, it’s up to you.”

“I’ve really relaxed, but now when I go to the grocery store or the drugstore, anywhere I think my grandparents or parents are going to go, I want to wear a mask,” said Ingrid Kutzner, who lives in the metro area.

Garza says vaccination is still the best way to prevent severe infection from the virus. Medical experts hope that a new vaccine recently approved by the FDA, Novavax, could potentially entice more residents in the community to get vaccinated.

“This is a much more traditional vaccine because it contains the protein, the spike protein, that triggers the immune response,” Garza said. “I think it’s always good to have more options, and what this one can offer is that if people are hesitant because of not knowing the M-RNA technology, things like that, then it’s a viable option.”

Health experts say it could be several more weeks before Novavax vaccines are available to the public in the region.

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