What you should know
- According to the CDC, the “stealth” Omicron variant, BA.2, now accounts for 71% of COVID cases circulating in the New York area right now, up from 39% two weeks ago. It is now the dominant strain in the US as well.
- Meanwhile, New York City’s average daily caseload is up 43% from the previous four-week rolling average, but COVID hospitalizations and deaths continue to decline steadily as the recovery continues.
- Still, the latest increases in COVID cases are only a fraction of what they were during Omicron’s rise and peak in January, which is why officials urge context when assessing the numbers. Testing is also up slightly again.
The Omicron BA.2 variant, which is driving a new surge in COVID cases in the New York area and elsewhere, is now the dominant virus strain in the country, according to the latest update to data from the CDC. Tuesday.
The change comes a week after BA.2, a subvariant of the extremely contagious strain that caused unprecedented spikes in cases and hospitalizations across much of the world earlier this year, became the top strain in the area of New York, where CDC data shows it is circulating at a faster rate than nationally.
BA.2 is now 55% of all genomically sequenced COVID-positive samples nationally in the latest two-week data period, up from 35% in the CDC’s previous weekly update. In the New York region, which for CDC purposes includes New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands along with New York, BA.2 is 71% of samples tested.
That compares with a 52% share of tested cases in the same region last week, and comes amid a moderate increase in COVID cases.
New York City health officials have yet to isolate BA.2 from the original strain on their variant tracking page, and Health Department data indicates that Omicron still accounts for 100% of tested cases to date. Tuesday. Officials acknowledge the subvariant in the text, writing: “Omicron remains the dominant variant in New York City, with its BA.2 subvariant accounting for a modest but growing number of cases in the city.”
Notably, the emergence of the strain comes at a time when New York City is testing for variants at a near-historic level, isolating strains in approximately 12% of daily positive samples. That’s down from a peak of 14% in late February, but has risen in the past week, reflecting slightly increasing trends in overall testing, Health Department data shows.
Meanwhile, the five-borough daily average of cases is up 43% from the previous four-week rolling average, but COVID hospitalizations and deaths continue to decline. Those mobile metrics are down 38% and 50% compared to the previous four-week averages, and while hospitalizations and deaths are known lagging factors, officials say they don’t expect any new spikes in severe cases.
Why not? Well, the latest peak cases are markedly down from what they were just two months ago, for example. The city’s rolling average of 1,143 positive cases as of the latest data is 79% lower than the average of 5,503 reported on January 26.
While the pendulum swings the other way (an 85% increase in the rolling average of cases in the past month), the overall numbers remain comparatively low, with experts saying the vast majority of new COVID patients they recover quickly at home.
Manhattan has seen the highest jumps in transmission in recent weeks, with TriBeca and Battery Park City leading the list of best neighborhoods in terms of percent positivity and the county accounting for 70% of the top 10 in that regard.
However, the raw numbers provide the necessary context that officials have pointed out in their attempt to stem public concern. TriBeca, while experiencing the highest continuous positivity rate in the city by zip code right now, has 25 new positives.
For Battery Park City, it’s even less (19). Sort the data by the raw numbers and you get a slightly different story. Manhattan neighborhoods still top the list, but those neighborhoods also report some of the highest average testing rates in the city.
Ultimately, officials say dominance of BA.2 was expected and some other variant of COVID is expected to take its turn as well. That doesn’t necessarily exacerbate community risk. In the city, the alert level remains “low”. It doesn’t get any lower.
Although the World Health Organization has said that BA.2 is “inherently more transmissible” than the previous strain, there is no evidence at this time to indicate that it is more resistant to vaccines or is linked to more serious infections, which are much more critical landmarks for city leaders. They are not in “alarmist” mode.
Additionally, the FDA has just authorized a fourth dose of the COVID vaccine for Pfizer and Moderna recipients, which is expected to provide additional protection to millions more people.
Public health and elected officials say they understand New Yorkers’ anxiety despite their assurances, given what’s happened in the past two years, and all agree the vigilant reopening process must move forward as they monitor the numbers.
Significant progress in that regard has been made in the past month and is expected to continue, with New York City Mayor Eric Adams lifting the mask mandate in K-12 schools earlier this month. and will do the same for classes with children ages 2-4 on April 4. The plan for younger children hinges on keeping central viral rates low, which they have done so far, even amid the slight rise in cases citywide.
That said, the progressive steps have not come without controversy. Adams continues to face backlash for what some are calling his “arbitrary” decision last week to excuse New York City-based professional athletes and entertainers from the private-sector vaccination mandate implemented by his predecessor in December.
Adams has insisted that his “difficult choice” was in the best economic interest of the city, while public and private employees who lost their jobs or faced possible termination (along with those who represent them) due to the ongoing mandate are demanding what to say is a more equitable “one rule fits all”.