As the US enters the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic following an Omicron-driven surge in infections, public health officials are bracing for another spike in cases with the emergence of a more contagious sub-variant than it has caused surges in cases in China and the United States. in some parts of Europe.
Meanwhile, US states and cities have largely relaxed public health measures, including mask and vaccine requirements, preparing the nation for a potentially major test of “living with Covid,” while that 1,000 Americans continue to die from the disease every day.
The BA.2 subvariant, also known as “stealth Omicron,” accounts for nearly 35 percent of confirmed infections in the US as of March 21, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That marks a 10 percent increase from the previous week.
Scientists have attributed the growth of BA.2 to its several key mutations; the spike protein gene on its surface has eight mutations not found in BA.1.
The researchers have determined that such mutations have made BA.2 more transmissible, not that it necessarily evades antibody protection. BA.1 remains the dominant subvariant in the US.
Common symptoms of BA.2 infections appear to include a runny nose, headache, sore throat, and fatigue, among other indicators of Covid-19 including sneezing, persistent cough, hoarseness, chills or chills, unusual joint pain, fever, dizziness, mental confusion, eye pain, altered or loss of sense of smell, muscle aches, swollen glands, loss of appetite, and chest pains.
As health officials study the spread of the subvariant, drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna have filed emergency use authorization requests with the US Food and Drug Administration for a second “booster” dose of their vaccines. Currently, people in the US with moderately or severely weakened immune systems are eligible for a fourth dose.
A vaccine regimen followed by a third “booster” dose has provided critical protections against serious illness, hospitalization and death during the public health crisis, as studies begin to reveal their waning efficacy and durability against different variants.
About 65 percent of Americans, or more than 217 million people, are considered fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. Nearly 97 million people in that group have received at least one “booster” dose. About 23 percent of the US have not received any doses of the vaccine.
The White House, meanwhile, has warned that the federal government has depleted COVID-19-related funding so it can buy additional booster doses and fund COVID testing without congressional action, raising fears of a growing crisis to combat. the ongoing emergency.
At the same time, requirements related to vital protections, such as wearing well-fitting N95 or K95 masks indoors and in crowded spaces, are simultaneously being reduced in the US.
European authorities relaxed such restrictions too soon before they began to see spikes in cases, according to the World Health Organization.
Hans Kluge, the organization’s regional director for Europe, said 18 countries “are brutally lifting those restrictions, from too many to too few” instead of taking more measured approaches.
Dr. Ashwin Vasan, the new health commissioner for New York City, where BA.2 accounted for about a third of cases in the past week, said health officials are closely monitoring whether the city and the U.S. The US is on the verge of a similar infection. wave.
“Community spread remains low,” he said last week. “Hospitalizations and deaths are stable or declining.”
BA.2 accounts for 42 percent of all cases in the state, once a global epicenter of the virus, according to state health officials.
“We don’t expect to see a sharp increase in cases in New York state,” state health commissioner Mary Bassett said Monday. “We’ll be watching, so I don’t want to promise you it won’t change.”
White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci has predicted a likely “rebound” in BA.2-related infections, as the relatively low number of confirmed infections compared to pandemic peaks reflects the calm in Europe that preceded the current wave.
told ABC This week on March 20 that now “there is no time to declare victory, because this virus has fooled us before and we really have to be prepared for the possibility that we have another variant.”
“We don’t want to be caught flat-footed on that,” he said.
White House Covid-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha said last week that he “doesn’t expect a huge spike here, but we’re going to have to pay close attention and really go by the data like we have throughout the pandemic.” .