Simplified: Minnehaha County has seen a slow increase in COVID-19 cases since April, according to the South Dakota Department of Health. And local doctors say the number of reported cases is dwarfed by cases diagnosed through at-home testing. Here's what to know about the BA.4 and BA.5 variants making the rounds right now.

Why it matters

  • The BA.4 and BA.5 variants are more transmissible than previous variants according to Dr. Jeremy Cauwels, Chief Physician at Sanford Health.
  • Cauwels said Sanford has seen an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the last few weeks, and Dr. Chad Thury, family medicine physician with Avera, said they have also seen an increase from June.
  • A new vaccine may roll out in October according to Cauwels, which would protect against new strains.
“Their big advantages are they're very, very good at spreading," Cauwels said. "The other part that's sort of interesting is they're a little better at evading the body's immune system, and so because of that, the vaccine, while still very protective against hospitalization and death, has not been as protective for mild illness.”

Do we really know how many people have COVID?

The number of reported cases is less accurate now because of at home testing said Thury, so it's harder to gauge the prevalence of the virus.

  • Watching hospitalization numbers is a good marker of how severe COVID is, Thury said.
  • Thury said the percentage of positive tests is also a good landmark of infection. In April, Thury said 5% to 10% of the tests they ran were positive, and now that is closer to 30%.
“I think we'll have this little bump and that'll go back down," Thury said. "And then I think as we get into the fall and that'll really depend on if there's any news strains that are popping up.”

What's different about the new variants?

The BA.4 and BA.5 variants spread easily because our immune systems are looking out for a different version of the virus, said Cauwels, so we're seeing more cases. However, these variants are less virulent said Thury, meaning they don't cause severe disease on average.

  • Despite the increase in hospitalizations, Thury said fewer infected patients require hospitalization, and those that do usually don't spend time in the ICU.
"The [variants] that are the best at slipping past the immune system, because they don't look quite like the old version, are better at infecting people," Cauwels said. "Because of that, they spread more often.”

What's the latest on vaccines?

The CDC recommends a fourth dose for those above age 50 or in a high-risk category, but Cauwels said Sanford isn't turning away other individuals who want another dose.

  • Despite the new variants' evasion of the vaccine, the original doses still help prevent severe illness.

The new bivalent vaccine may also be available by October according to Cauwels, which would protect against two things: the original virus and the current BA.4 and BA.5 strains.