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An increasing number of counties in the Chattanooga region are now at high risk for COVID-19 as omicron subvariant BA.5 continues to drive a nationwide surge in cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Across the United States, counties with high COVID-19 risk levels also continue to increase, with nearly 46% of counties considered high risk as of Monday.

The BA.5 subvariant, which according to the CDC now makes up roughly 82% of all COVID-19 cases in the country, is the most contagious version of the coronavirus yet and better than any prior strain at evading immunity from previous infection and vaccination.

The CDC recommends that people in high-risk areas wear face masks indoors in public and on public transportation, stay up-to-date with COVID-19 vaccines and get tested and isolate from others if they have symptoms. But in the Chattanooga region, public face mask use and vaccination uptake remains low.

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As of Monday, the area's high-risk counties included Bradley, Coffee, Franklin, Grundy, McMinn, Meigs, Polk and Rhea counties in Tennessee, Chattooga and Gordon counties in Georgia and DeKalb and Jackson counties in Alabama.

Two weeks ago, nine area counties were considered high risk, according to the CDC.

The CDC's county COVID-19 risk level rankings are based on the weekly rate of new cases, hospital admissions and the percent of inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Older adults and people at higher risk for severe illness should consider taking additional precautions, according to the CDC.

Hamilton County recently moved from the high-risk to medium-risk category, though case reports to the Hamilton County Health Department remain near their highest level since February, when the initial omicron wave resulted in an all-time-record number of reported cases.

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Dr. Jay Sizemore, an infectious disease specialist at Erlanger Health System, said during a public hospital board meeting Thursday that community COVID-19 levels are "extraordinarily high" despite positive cases being significantly underreported due to the rise in at-home testing. Though hospitalizations have also risen, Sizemore said the proportion of seriously ill patients in the current surge is down compared to comparable prior waves.

"The overwhelming majority of these hospitalizations are non-ICU admissions. So although we're seeing a fair number of cases, they're not to the same severity as we were seeing earlier in the pandemic," he said.

The Hamilton County Health Department continues to offer free, take-home COVID-19 test kits at all facilities while supplies last, according to the website testing.hamiltontn.gov. Those seeking test kits should call first to check availability.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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