By Kayla Benjamin

Dr. Valda Crowder, affectionately known as Dr. V, works as an emergency medicine physician and a senior consultant for Capitol Health Partners based in Bethesda. Over the course of more than 30 years, she has treated patients through four pandemics: COVID-19, HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. Her YouTube webinar series, “Ask Dr. V,” addresses various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as other health and wellness topics.

She spoke with The Washington Informer about the newest dominant COVID-19 variants, BA.4 and BA.5, and shared what people should be doing to protect themselves from the highly-contagious strains.

Washington Informer: Let’s start with the basics. What should people, especially Black residents of the DMV, know about these new variants?

Dr. Crowder: It used to be that if we saw people catching COVID more than once, it was rare. I’m now seeing many people who have caught COVID more than once. And over multiple times, it doesn’t get less severe: I had a patient who caught it four times, and on her fourth time, she said, ‘This is the worst it’s ever been.’ 

I tell people: ‘Don’t take this lightly.’ What we’re seeing with every iteration is [the virus] improving its ability to transmit from person to person. So, it’s getting increasingly efficient. It’s almost like your cell phone. The versions, iPhone 2, 3, and 4, get better with each model, right? That’s what the virus does. It gets better, from its perspective, because it absolutely wants to live and transmit all over the place. 

WI: How concerned should we be about the new variants compared to how we’re reacting now?

Dr. V: It depends on who you are and what you have going on. In the U.S., overall you have about one-third of the population who are not vaccinated. You also have only about a third of the people who’ve had a booster. That means you have two-thirds of the people who haven’t had the booster. I tell people they should have had a shot this year. If not, they need to run out and get a COVID vaccine immediately. 

It’s going to be a yearly vaccine that we need to get. And every year, they’re going to try to anticipate what the next variant is going to be, just like they do with the flu vaccine. And they’re going to try to give us the inoculation for that. But if you haven’t had a vaccination this year for COVID, you should as soon as possible. 

WI: What else do you recommend people do to keep themselves safe since we’re expecting the new variant of the virus to spread quickly? 

Dr. V: Make sure you have home COVID tests at home. You can still go on the [] website and get some for free if you’ve run out. And if you do catch COVID, try to take the Paxlovid antiviral pill as early as possible. That pill decreases the likelihood of hospitalization by 90%, and some of the early studies are showing that it may also decrease long COVID. 

WI: What about masking?

Dr. V: I do not take my mask off indoors. If I go to the grocery store, if I go shopping, I still indoor mask everywhere. I’ve been avoiding flying because they removed the mask mandate, which I think is unbelievably horrible. I tell people, ‘don’t fly unless you have to, and if you do fly, don’t even take your mask off to have a drink.’ I try to make sure if I go to a restaurant, that it is a restaurant that has outdoor seating.

In small gatherings where I might be with family or friends, I make sure that everyone’s vaccinated. And I’ll make sure a window, or a sliding glass door with a screen, is open, so there’s some sort of aeration.

WI: As a doctor, what are you seeing in terms of the infection rate? The number of new cases reported by DC Health show they’re still relatively low. But is the predicted uptick from these variants already occurring? 

Dr. V: It used to be that you could only get a COVID test if you went to urgent care, or hospital, or a government facility. Now, with so many home tests, you have a lot of tests that are being done that are not being reported. A better number to look at is emergency department visits and hospitalizations. In general, emergency department visits for COVID are up. 

I would say Omicron and Delta were very lethal, but for now, I’m not seeing that lethality. It’s transmitting faster, but it is usually like a really bad flu or a very bad cold. Obviously, if you’re elderly or debilitated in some way, shape, or form, that can be life-threatening.

This post was originally published on The Washington Informer.