The Omicron subvariant BA.5 is now the dominant COVID-19 variant in the U.S., and it’s understandable to have questions—especially since this variant has quickly taken over. BA.5 first started as a teeny portion of cases in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) variant tracker in early May, only to now cause nearly 54% of cases in the U.S.
Given how quickly BA.5 has taken over and the fact that it’s happened during warmer months, plenty of people are wondering if you can get BA.5 outdoors. The short answer, infectious disease experts say, is yes, but it’s a little more complicated than that. Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself and loves ones from getting sick.
So, can you get BA.5 outdoors?
Yes, you can get BA.5 outdoors, but you could also contract other COVID variants outside, says Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York. “Outdoors has never been a 100% safe zone,” he says. “You’re much less likely to get infected outdoors than you are indoors—that’s unequivocal. However, if you’re in close quarters with an individual in close quarters for a longer period of time, you’re still at risk of getting infected.” At the end of the day, your likelihood of catching Omicron comes down to proximity to an infected person, and airflow and ventilation of the space you’re in. “Virus disperses quickly and doesn’t fill an area over time as it does in poorly ventilated indoor spaces,” Dr. Russo says.
Factors like not having much wind in the area and the infectiousness of the variant matter, Dr. Russo says. “With BA.5, we think it’s more transmissible than earlier Omicron subvariants.” Meaning, you’re more likely to get BA.5 outdoors than you were to get a different COVID variant, like Delta or even other forms of Omicron.
While BA.5 hasn’t been closely studied, “it’s the most contagious variant we’ve had so far,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “It stands to reason that, under certain circumstances, if you have a spreader at your barbecue party, they can spread it to people outdoors,” he says.
What outdoor settings are the riskiest?
Situations where people are closely crowded together and around each other for longer periods of time are the most concerning, Dr. Russo says. Those can include:
“If you go to mass outdoor events where you’re jammed together with a lot of people for a prolonged time, you’re at risk,” Dr. Schaffner says.
What is the BA.5 subvariant, again?
BA.5 is a subvariant of the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19. It’s listed as a variant of concern by the CDC (along with other Omicron variants). It has several mutations to its spike protein that allows it to spread more easily between people, Dr. Russo explains.
“It appears to be more infectious than previous variants and able to evade vaccine-induced or prior infection-induced immunity to a greater degree than the earlier Omicron subvariants,” Dr. Russo says. It’s unclear at this point whether BA.5 causes more severe disease than other subvariants, he notes.
And, while some have suggested that BA.5 is as contagious as measles (which is considered the most infectious virus known to man), infectious disease experts aren’t sure yet. “I don’t think any highly reliable likening to measles contagiousness can be made—there’s not enough data at this point and I don’t believe we have the near 100% attack rate seen with measles or its degree of airborne transmission,” says Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security
Dr. Schaffner agrees. “It’s an interesting debate but we don’t have any direct measures,“ he says. “We still think measles is the most contagious virus we know, but BA.5 is getting up there.”
How to protect yourself from BA.5
While outdoor transmission of COVID-19 in low-risk settings is “generally uncommon,” Dr. Adalja says that it’s difficult to avoid the virus at this point.
“The goal is to minimize severe disease by being vaccinated and boosted if high risk,” he says. “High-risk people should also think about wearing masks in highly congregated areas, having their close contacts test before interacting with them, receiving Evusheld, and having a plan for Paxlovid and/or monoclonal antibodies if they test positive.” (Evusheld, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a combination of two human monoclonal antibodies—tixagevimab and cilgavimab—which are used to prevent COVID-19.)
If you’re at high risk for COVID-19 complications or just don’t want to get infected, Dr. Russo recommends being cautious about crowds. “In indoor settings, you want to avoid scenarios where people aren’t wearing masks,” he says. “And, in outdoor settings where you’ll be in close proximity with people for a long period of time, you’ll want to wear a high-quality mask.”
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