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BA2 variant of coronavirus prompts caution in McLean County

The McLean County Health Department reported three more COVID-related deaths on Friday.
Eric Stock
The McLean County Health Department reported three more COVID-related deaths on Friday.

COVID-19 cases and deaths have begun to rise in Illinois as the newly dominant BA2 variant of the coronavirus moves through the population. It's hard to say just yet whether it will be a mountain of cases or a speed bump, according to the McLean County Health Department.

Health department spokesperson Marianne Manko reminds people the pandemic is not over. And if you aren't vaccinated, that's bad news.

"It's more transmissible than the BA1 was, or omicron," said Manko. "That's what we saw in the really big spike from December to February. It spiked up quickly and then it came down very quickly. This one is even more transmissible than the BA1. But it appears, so far, to cause about the same amount of disease severity."

That's good news for people who are fully vaccinated, are up to date on boosters and are relatively healthy. Others may have had omicron or delta and still have some natural immunity to BA2. For those with immuno-compromised systems or who have other high risk factors, it is a worry.

"Usually what happens in the UK first is what happens here. That's what we're seeing so far," said Manko. "If it pans out that way, it's good. We still strongly encourage people to get vaccines and to stay up to date on boosters. We know this has helped reduce disease severity, and keeps hospitalizations and deaths down considerably. A lot of people think this pandemic is over. In the first week of April, we had 11,000 new cases in the state and 71 deaths. So it's not over yet."

In McLean County, there were 88 COVID-19 cases in the first week in March and 203 the first week in April, according to health department figures. Twin City hospitals remain relatively clear of COVID cases, though that is starting to change, she said.

"When cases start to go up, it's a while before you start getting hospitalizations and deaths," said Manko. "First, people get exposed. Then it incubates on average, five to seven days. Then people start to get symptoms. Then they go and they get the test. Then they get sick. Then the hospitalizations happen and then the deaths also occur. And we've already started to see some of that with new hospitalizations."

She said there was a big drop in testing volume starting April 1, so it may be there is no good estimate of how much disease is out there.

"It's difficult when we have testing this low because we can assume that the true number of new cases is probably under reported. So, that's why it's important to have those home tests," said Manko

Home tests work best when there are active symptoms. If a home test turns up positive, she said it's important to confirm it with a more rigorous PCR test, especially if they person is unvaccinated. There are treatments available within the first five days of symptoms to lessen severity and keep people out of the hospital.

"And those change. They were different with the delta variant. And then the kind of monoclonal antibody treatments that we had for omicron changed with the BA1 from the BA2. Medicine is keeping up. We just need people to keep up," said Manko.

Testing also is important to help track variants and develop new treatments, she said.

Manko said case numbers for the BA2 variant have risen slower than they did during the omicron wave at the start of the year. That may not remain the case.

"We just had people who came back from spring break. Some people are still taking spring break trips. That means traveling outside of your location where transmission levels are higher, and intermingling with people from different parts of the country or different parts of the world. Easter is right around the corner, coming up this weekend. Again, people will intermingle and have close contact," said Manko.

She said no matter how tired you are of masks and social distancing, Easter time gatherings mean good cough and sneeze etiquette is more important than ever.

"You can still get the virus even if you are vaccinated. And if you do, you can spread it to others," said Manko. "Once a pandemic like this comes, it never goes away."

And for a true silver lining moment, she said masks will even help with seasonal allergies.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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