Throughout the pandemic, the U.S. has experienced waves of different variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Recently, another omicron subvariant, known as BA.2.12.1, began increasing in prevalence in some parts of the country. As of late June, BA.2.12.1 made up more than half of U.S. COVID cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

SARS-CoV-2 is constantly changing and other new variants are expected to emerge, said Dr. David Priest, Novant Health chief, safety, quality and epidemiology officer.

Still, the best way to protect yourself (and others) is getting vaccinated, experts agree, since unvaccinated individuals are most prone to becoming very sick with the COVID.

Dr. David Priest
Dr. David Priest

"There's no denying that COVID preferentially affects those who are unvaccinated and unboosted," Priest said.

His advice: Don't wait to get vaccinated or receive a booster.

"Data has shown that three doses of Pfizer's or Moderna's vaccine gives a significant boost in protection. It's not 100%, but like I've said, nothing in medicine is," Priest said.

And consider getting a fourth dose if you are eligible, he added.

CDC recommends the vaccine to young children

If you have a child who is 6 months or older, they are eligible for a COVID vaccine. Vaccination protects the child, siblings who are too young to get one and our most vulnerable family members.

Here's why one mom wants to vaccinate her 9-month-old son, Jacob.

'Let's say I get COVID. What treatments are available?'

Sotrovimab is a monoclonal antibody treatment that is effective against omicron and its variants. It is administered via IV infusion, Priest said, and its supply has increased.

Sotrovimab is used to treat mild-to-moderate COVID disease in adults, as well as children 12 and older who weigh at least 88 pounds, who are at high risk for severe illness, hospitalization or death.

Other treatments such as Paxlovid and molnupiravir, anti-viral pills approved for people with mild to moderate symptoms, have proven to be effective in keeping COVID patients out of the hospital.

AstraZeneca's Evusheld, a monoclonal antibody combination therapy, is also being utilized for "people with weakened immune systems who likely did not respond to the vaccine and need extra protection," Priest said. It is administered as two separate injections.

"So, the number of tools at our disposal has increased and that's good news, because treatments like Evusheld and Paxlovid seem to do a pretty good job at keeping vulnerable people from having to be admitted to the hospital," Priest said.

Where can I get a COVID test?

For people seeking a COVID-19 test, please do not go to the Emergency Department unless you are experiencing life-threatening symptoms such as shortness of breath or low oxygen levels.

Novant Health testing locations and hours are located here. To help reduce wait times and ensure availability of tests, people are asked to make an appointment. Novant Health patients can also call their primary care physician’s office to inquire about testing.

Keep in mind, asymptomatic patients who are seeking travel, return-to-work or return-to-school clearance are asked to use the NCDHHS website to find a location that best suits their needs.

What are the recommendations on isolation and quarantine?

People with COVID should isolate for five days, the CDC said. If they’re improving or have no symptoms at the end of that time period, isolation is no longer required but guidance suggests they wear a mask around others for five additional days.

“I think this change was brought on by newer data that people with omicron are most likely to be infectious one to two days prior to getting symptoms, as well as the desire to balance safety and keeping society open,” Priest said.

The CDC also updated their recommendations on quarantining if someone is exposed to COVID but asymptomatic. Unvaccinated or unboosted persons should quarantine for five days followed by "strict masking" for five more days.

“If your vaccination is up to date, meaning you're not yet eligible for a booster or you've been boosted, you do not have to quarantine or stay home if exposed to COVID. But the CDC suggests you wear a mask for 10 days when around others. And they did say to consider getting a test on the fifth day,” Priest added.

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Should I still be concerned about traveling or gathering with others?

It’s safest to travel if you’ve been fully vaccinated, Priest said, you’re masking in public and when you’re going somewhere with a group of people who are doing the same thing. But this comes back to your tolerance for risk and your potential for exposure to COVID.

"People have to make their own decisions and families have to work this out. I understand how hard this can be, but I think people should try to make the safest decisions they can," he said. As always, people are encouraged to mask indoors, social distance when possible and wash their hands often.

"If you're really concerned about a loved one who is vulnerable, gather outside or wear a mask," Priest said. "If you're symptomatic, of course, please get tested. But I don't think testing is something that has to be done if everyone is vaccinated and asymptomatic," he added.

If someone in your family is "super high risk," meaning they've had an organ transplant, have uncontrolled HIV or are going through cancer treatment, then a family may consider adding COVID testing to their strategy in family gatherings, Priest said.

What else can I do to protect myself?

Continue wearing a mask in public, experts say, especially when indoors or in crowded places. And make sure you're up-to-date on all of your other vaccinations, including the annual flu shot.