(CNN) — The highly transmissible BA.5 subvariant of omicron accounts for at least 65% of new COVID-19 infections in the United States. according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Infections are rising in most parts of the country, and these numbers are almost certainly an undercount, given the number of people determining their status through home tests that go unreported.
At the same time, many people have many events planned for the summer, such as weddings, birthday celebrations, and informal gatherings. What should event organizers keep in mind? How can people think of their own risk when deciding whether to attend and what precautions to take? What if you have to attend something, say a work function, but you really don’t want covid to come back to your family? And what about people who have already recovered from an infection? Do they still have to worry about reinfection and disease risks, including prolonged covid?
To help us answer these questions, I spoke with CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She is also the author of “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health“.
CNN: Why is the BA.5 subvariant a concern right now?
Dr. Leana Wen: The BA.5 is now the dominant variant here in the United States and in many parts of the world. It appears to be the most transmissible variant so far. It can also be partially immune-evasive, meaning that people who have received their vaccinations or previously had covid-19 may not have much protection against a mild or asymptomatic infection.
However, vaccination protects against serious diseases. People who are not vaccinated should be vaccinated, and those who have not yet received their booster dose should be vaccinated. Being up to date on your vaccinations will help protect you from potentially serious consequences due to covid-19, which is ultimately the point of vaccination.
The reason it’s concerning right now is that there are high levels in many parts of the country. In areas with a lot of circulating virus, with such a transmissible pathogen, the chances of contracting covid-19 are high.
CNN: Does that mean people should cancel in-person events?
Wen: After two and a half years of the pandemic, I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask that people continue to forego weddings, birthday parties and other gatherings. Many people have decided that while it is unlikely that they will get seriously ill from covid-19, they will not take precautions to avoid it.
On the other hand, many people still want to avoid covid-19. Event organizers must take into account the wishes of those who meet.
CNN: What are some things people can do if they’re hosting a meeting?
Wen: The first thing is to recognize that whenever people gather together, especially in closed places, there is a risk of transmission of the new coronavirus. This is especially true with a very contagious virus and when there are so many viruses around us. It is unrealistic to set the expectation that no one will get coronavirus at the event, although you should try to reduce the risk.
Some ways to do this include first and foremost trying to have the meeting outdoors. We’ve said this throughout the pandemic, and it’s still true now that outdoors is much safer than indoors. The coronavirus is airborne, and the more air circulation you have, the better.
Ventilation is also important. A partial indoor/outdoor space where there is good air circulation will be better than a completely enclosed one. And one with open windows and doors and plenty of space will be less risky than a small, closed room with everyone crammed together.
If organizers want to further reduce risk, they could ask everyone to take a rapid test at home just before the event. Rapid tests aren’t perfect, but they’re very good at detecting whether someone has enough virus at the moment to infect others. Providing tests at the door is an added safeguard, in case not everyone has access to the tests beforehand.
Of course, masks can also reduce transmission of the virus. At this point in the pandemic, it can be difficult to get people to keep their masks on when most places no longer require them. I think it’s more realistic to plan an outdoor event and, if it has to be indoors, request testing rather than the required masks (although of course masks should be an option for those who want additional protection).
CNN: What’s your advice for people who are immunocompromised or people who really want to avoid getting Covid-19?
Wen: When these people are invited to an event, they should find out what precautions the organizer is taking and then calculate the risks accordingly. An outdoor event, or at least one where you can stay outdoors all the time, is fairly low risk. An event in closed places that requires tests or masks are also of lower risk.
What about crowded indoor events that don’t require testing or face coverings? One-way masking with a high-quality mask, N95 or equivalent, is still protective, but masks for the immunocompromised must fit well and must be kept on at all times. If they do go, they should consider eating beforehand and only remove their mask when they are outdoors or in a place where they are alone.
At the end of the day, there is no clear answer as to whether these people should go; it depends on how much they want to avoid covid-19 versus the benefit they would get from attending.
CNN: If someone has had Covid-19, do they need to worry about reinfection? What do we know about the risk of long covid with reinfection?
Wen: Reinfection is certainly possible. Those who had variants prior to omicron such as delta or alpha are susceptible to reinfection with sub-variants of omicron. We are even seeing reinfections in people who had the original omicron variant and are now getting BA.5.
The chance of reinfection within the first two to three months after the initial infection is quite low, but it increases after that. Previously infected people benefit from vaccination and booster, further reducing the likelihood of serious illness and infection.
There is a new study, published online but not yet peer-reviewed, showing that people with reinfection are at increased risk of prolonged covid and other possible consequences with each infection. These results may well prompt some people to say they want to avoid re-infection as much as possible.
CNN: Many people have to travel to attend conferences, meetings and other work functions. What is your advice if they don’t want to bring covid-19 back to their families?
Wen: There are two options. One is to try to reduce your risk while traveling and at these functions as much as possible, including limiting time indoors with others, wearing a mask during all interactions indoors, and avoiding indoor events with food and drink. or at least keep a mask on during these sessions and eat and drink separately elsewhere.
The second option is to assume that you will be exposed to and could contract COVID-19 during these work sessions, then self-quarantine and get tested before interacting with family members. Not everyone can do this, perhaps they have small children or other family responsibilities, but that is another option that may be suitable for some people.