Student Health reports BA.4, BA.5 variant surge

From June 26 to July 2, the student and faculty positivity rates for the coronavirus stood at 10.5% and 7.5%, with 160 students and 33 faculty members infected. (Christina Chkarboul | Daily Trojan file photo)

A majority of all positive coronavirus cases at the University from June 22 to June 28 were identified as the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants, which have resulted in more reports of severe illness than previously dominant Omicron variants, Chief Student Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman said during a briefing held Monday with the Daily Trojan

The prevalence of BA.4 and BA.5, Van Orman said, is consistent with the variants that the rest of the country is facing — BA.4 made up 15.7% of new cases in the United States, while BA.5 made up 36.6%, as of the week ending Saturday. From June 26 to July 2, the student and faculty positivity rates stood at 10.5% and 7.5%, with 160 students and 33 faculty members infected. 

The BA.5 variant, now the globally dominant strain of the coronavirus, was first detected alongside the BA.4 variant in January 2022. Coronavirus cases reported to the World Health Organization rose 30% in the last two weeks, according to Global News

“Two different variants have different properties … [such as] the severity of disease [they] cause,” Van Orman said. “The ones that are circulating now are much, much, much more infectious, meaning a smaller number of particles can cause infection.”

The University will not reinstate an indoor masking mandate, Van Orman said, unless Los Angeles County moves into the high-transmission category. L.A. County and surrounding counties have hovered in the medium-transmission category since mid-May, while New York Magazine and the L.A Times predicted that a surge would follow the recent July 4 holiday weekend. Van Orman said the University will be watching case numbers closely and will comply, if necessary, throughout all campus programs.

“We don’t anticipate that many programs will be impacted [by an indoor mask mandate],” Van Orman said. “We’re anticipating special exceptions made, for example, for people who might be playing music or singing, but we’re hoping that … [there’s] minimal disruption to activities.”

Prior infection with other Omicron variants doesn’t protect individuals from reinfection, despite early conjectures. However, Van Orman said, vaccines persistently appear effective against severe complications and hospitalizations.

“A variant that did not cause reinfection is just not going to survive because it’s going to find people who are already immune to it,” Van Orman said. “So we think about the basics of how natural selection works and evolution works. Variant strains that cause the most infections and escape the natural herd immunity we have is always going to quickly predominate in a population unless we can do something to stop it from spreading.”

With the global reemergence of monkeypox as a widespread, infectious illness, Student Health has deemed the outbreak of cases a “communicable disease of concern” that isn’t as easily transmitted as BA.4 and BA.5 variants of the coronavirus are. Monkeypox is a different kind of virus than the coronavirus, Van Orman said, because most positive monkeypox cases are sexually transmitted, making it inherently different than a respiratory or airborne virus, which can be shared through regular social contact. 

“[Monkeypox is] not something that we’ve seen being transmitted person to person outside of some very limited areas,” Van Orman said. “But we definitely are aware of it.”

Although L.A. County reports indicate 66 confirmed or probable cases of monkeypox, the University hasn’t seen a positive case on campus. Student Health providers are now developing procedures to identify and treat monkeypox upon recognition of symptoms in patients, she said.

“Monkeypox has a very characteristic set of symptoms: people develop like a flu-like illness … body aches, swollen lymph nodes, fever and then a couple of days later, they develop a very characteristic rash,” Van Orman said. “We have trained all of our providers … so that if we have a patient who presents with suspect lesions, that all of our team from our nurses to our physicians or physician assistants are aware … and we have a rapid procedure to be able to make the diagnosis, consult with public health and get the right testing done.”

When testing on an individual with a suspected rash is conducted by health providers, Student Health healthcare providers must first notify public health colleagues, Van Orman said. A set of samples collected by swabbing the patient’s lesions is sent to the public health lab and the possibly infected patient is sent into isolation.

“It’s not something that I think people need to worry about like ‘Oh, do I have monkeypox?’” Van Orman said. “It’s not a very subtle illness, it’s very characteristic and people feel quite ill and they have this very unusual rash.”

Christina Chkarboul contributed to this report.