BA.2 sub-variant drives rise in COVID-19 cases

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This is no spring fever.

Health care experts in Minnesota and across the country are taking a good hard look at the BA.2 sub-variant. 

“Right now, it’s watchful waiting,” says Dr. Jill Foster, a pediatric and infectious disease specialist at M Health Fairview and the University of Minnesota. “We know that the majority of what’s out there is the BA. 2 variant. Not sure what that means yet. I think this is sort of a bump rather than a surge right now.”

Health authorities are watchful, because nationwide, COVID-19 cases are rising for the first time since January.

New research from Johns Hopkins shows the rolling average for daily new cases is now at nearly 40,000 nationwide.

That’s nowhere near the hundreds of thousands of new cases reported during the height of the previous omicron surge.

“If that becomes a bigger problem, then obviously, we’ll want to do something to curtail that,” says Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator. “Right now, my expectation is that that is not going to become a major problem across the country. Let’s see where the data goes.”

There are concerns because BA.2 — a mutant strain — is 35% more contagious.

Minnesota health officials say they’re not tracking exactly how many Minnesotans have been infected by BA.2.

But Metropolitan Council researchers are collecting data on COVID-19 in Twin Cities wastewater samples.

This week’s research shows that 95% of the virus — is BA.2.  

MDH says COVID hospitalizations state-wide have remained steady this week.

The health department says 205 people are in the hospital, and most are non-ICU patients.

“I think people shouldn’t be losing sleep about it, but I think people should be smart,” Foster says. “All along what we’ve been hoping to do is not overwhelm the hospitals, and so depending on how many people have the illness, a certain percentage are going to get hospitalized, a certain percentage are going to need the ICU, so we just want to make sure we have enough beds, we have enough staff.”

All this, as the spring travel season gets underway.

The Centers for Disease Control has now extended the mask mandate on public transportation for another two weeks, giving researchers more time to learn about BA.2 trends.

“Is this going to become a major problem, or is this going to be something we’ll be able to manage effectively?” Jha says. “I think with 15 more days of data we’ll be able to make — the CDC scientists will be able to make — a much-more data driven report.”

But there’s another wrinkle.

This is the first wave of COVID since authorities have lifted mask and distancing restrictions in public — at restaurants, bars, and sports venues, for example.

The health department says the best protection is to stay up to date with your COVID vaccine doses and boosters.

MDH recommends that individuals and families should look at the risks and benefits when making decisions about how to stay protected from COVID.

“Our vaccines still work, not any more severe, but (BA.2) is spreading across our country, so we’ll have to watch it carefully and monitor where it goes,” Jha says. “I’m hoping it does not lead to a major surge in infections but we’ve got to really watch that very, very carefully.”

Meanwhile — health researchers say they’ve discovered two new sub-variants.

Both are 25% more contagious and have been detected in thirty states and forty countries — including 90% of new COVID cases in central New York State.

Foster’s advice?

You might consider masking up, she says — and avoiding crowded indoor spaces — especially if you’re a senior or have a compromised immune system. “Think about your own risk, but think also about how you’re trying to help your community,” Foster says. “You shouldn’t be worried losing sleep — but you should be thinking about doing the reasonable things that you can do to keep yourself a little bit safe — which is hard after all these months to keep doing it, keep doing it. But uh, it’s kind of become the new normal.”