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Experts say BA.2 could be more of a “bump” than a push.  Is this the future of COVID?

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Is America about to dodge the BA.2 bullet?

For weeks now, BA.2 – an even more transmissible sub-variant of BA.1, Omicron’s original, hyper-contagious strain – has been wreaking havoc across Europe, triggering abrupt and sudden resurgences of infection just as the continent’s huge winter surge finally seemed to be subsiding. In England, hospitalizations related to COVID-19 have not been higher since the pre-vaccine era.

At first, it was feared that BA.2 could trigger a similar push in the United States. But dig into the latest data, and it looks like something different might be happening instead: a less dangerous and disruptive type of COVID “bump” that could herald the next phase of the pandemic — if America has any luck.

Experts say BA.2 could be more of a “bump” than a push.  Is this the future of COVID?

 |  Today Headlines

People walk past a COVID-19 testing site in midtown Manhattan on March 31. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

There is no doubt that the cases in the United States are increasing or that BA.2 is responsible for them. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the new variant had officially achieved national dominance after being detected in 55% of COVID-19 samples analyzed between March 20 and March 26.

As a result, the average number of cases has increased over the past two weeks, especially in Washington, DC (106%) and New York (58%) – some of the first places BA.2 landed. It won’t be a surprise if the same pattern plays out this spring in other cities and states as well.

But it would be a surprise, at this point, if BA.2 rose in the US the way Omicron BA.1 rose over the winter – or the way BA.2 rose recently in Europe.

There are several reasons for this. The first is that BA.2 is already moving too slowly to cause this kind of push in the United States. At present, the CDC estimates the new subvariant – which has been spreading since December, accounts for at least 72% of new COVID cases at national scale. On the day Omicron BA.1 hit 73% nationwide – December 20 – America had 300,000 cases. The curve was already a vertical line. Today, that number is 10 times lower, at around 30,000.

Some observers have noted that the United States is seeing fewer PCR test results now than it was then, largely because home antigen testing — which typically goes unreported — is more widely available. “Many people quickly test positive for mild cases of COVID, stay home for a few days, get better, and move on with their lives,” said Derek Thompson of the Atlantic. Noted Thusday. “This cycle makes no contact [with] official data. Thompson called it “an invisible wave”.

Experts say BA.2 could be more of a “bump” than a push.  Is this the future of COVID?

 |  Today Headlines

Lisa Bates, a medical technologist, in the PCR testing lab at Quest Diagnostics in Indianapolis. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Thompson is correct that PCR numbers — those that register on COVID tracking sites — are down. On December 20, America was performing an average of more than 1.7 million such tests per day; now it is on average half as many (870,000).

But just because the full Degree of the spread of the virus is unclear does not mean that its path is unknowable. The United States has never detected every infection through testing. Instead, officials rely on the percentage of tests that come back positive at any given time to gauge the rate of transmission.

On December 20, that positivity rate was nearly 8% nationwide. Today, it’s less than half that figure: 3.5%.

Meanwhile, in New York — which is widely considered America’s barometer of BA.2 — the current positivity rate is even lower, at just 3%. Granted, that’s up from a low of 1.5% in early March. But that has nothing to do with the astronomical 5% to 22% increase the state saw after the Omicron BA.1 explosion in early December.

And that’s the point: BA.2 is spreading. This drives up the cases. This will continue to increase cases in different regions. But it starts from a much lower level than Omicron BA.1 while transmitting less quickly and easily – which means, as Yale epidemiologist Nathan Grubaugh recently put it, “we are NOT in a large increase in cases or a big wave (at least at current rates).

Why? Because waves (or surges or bumps) don’t go up forever, but rather peak at a fairly predictable rate. This is happening across Europe, where BA.2 infections are already on the decline; this is also what is happening in Canada.

Experts say BA.2 could be more of a “bump” than a push.  Is this the future of COVID?

 |  Today Headlines

A security guard talks to people waiting in line at a COVID-19 testing center in Toronto. (Geoff Robins/AFP via Getty Images)

And in fact, a similar pattern may already be emerging in New York, according to COVID researcher Conor Kelly. Kelly recently calculated that although cases have increased week-over-week since early February, the rate at which they grew peaked at the end of March and has already begun to decline – all in hospitalizations remained almost stable.

This suggests that local cases could soon peak at a fraction of their Omicron winter heights, with few serious illnesses and deaths that have accompanied this heartbreaking surge. “Things don’t get out of hand,” Kelly explained. “Nobody needs to panic the least bit about BA.2, in my opinion.”

None, which means the pandemic is over. It is estimated that 7 million Americans are immunocompromised, no child under 5 has been vaccinated; and the “long COVID” is looming as a real concern. Millions of seniors are still unvaccinated; tens of millions more remain unboosted. Even if BA.2 doesn’t trigger another massive wave, it still lays down the same individual health risk like Omicron BA.1. People should be up to date with vaccinations and exercise caution in gathering places.

At the same time, vulnerable people can no longer rely on indoor mask mandates to help protect them from exposure. When it comes to being cautious, Americans are now pretty much alone. And the Biden administration’s modest request for a $10 billion federal investment in surveillance, therapeutics, boosters, and next-generation vaccines — all aimed at preparing America for new variants and future surges. — may never survive the deeply partisan Senate. It’s a unforced error Americans may soon regret.

Experts say BA.2 could be more of a “bump” than a push.  Is this the future of COVID?

 |  Today Headlines

President Biden delivers a speech on April 1. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

But even as critics lament the first “So what?” Surge,” as The Atlantic’s Katherine J. Wu recently dubbed it — and how “misplaced” the U.S. is to deal with the next serious outbreak — it’s also worth reflecting on the hard-won progress but undeniable that a non-vague BA.2 could represent.

No one is exactly sure Why BA.2 doesn’t seem to be hitting the US as hard as, say, the UK. Global warming could play a role; last winter, the Alpha variant slammed England, then sputtered in the United States. But the strongest theories have to do with immunity – or, more specifically, the fresh antibodies produced by a recent infection with Omicron BA.1, which primarily prevent its sister line BA.2 from immediately re-infecting the same person. (Vaccinations and boosters are extraordinarily effective in blocking serious illness and death, and they also help protect against infections.)

At a meeting of the Food and Drug Administration’s advisory board earlier this week, senior virologist Trevor Bedford of the Fred Hutchinson Center in Seattle estimates that a staggering 50% of Americans had been infected with Omicron in the previous 10 weeks. Enabled by lagging vaccination rates and lax mitigation measures, these infections have come at a horrific and unacceptable cost: 200,000 more Americans have died since early December.

But they also appear to be helping to shield those lucky enough to survive from the worst of BA.2, and to hinder the spread in a way that much of Europe lacks (perhaps due to exposure lower at BA.1 and a more sudden abandonment of security measures).

If so, America’s BA.2 bump – with people “rapidly testing positive for mild cases of COVID, staying home for a few days, getting better and living on” – could be a another step towards the “next Ordinary.”

Experts say BA.2 could be more of a “bump” than a push.  Is this the future of COVID?

 |  Today Headlines

iHealth COVID-19 free home antigen rapid tests sent by the federal government. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

According to Bedfordthere are two plausible scenarios for next year: 1) another “Omicron-like emergence event” in which a “new, highly divergent virus” escapes existing immunity and upends society again, or 2) ” evolving within BA.2″ to “further increase intrinsic transmission”, causing “lower attack rates” largely “due to drift + decay [immunity] + seasonality.

He sees the second as “more likely” – suggesting that future surges may look more like BA.2 than BA.1.

Fingers crossed then. On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that she had tested positive for COVID-19 — the latest of a growing number of prominent figures in Washington, D.C., including Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of State Trade Gina Raimondo, to catch what is almost certainly BA.2 after attending Saturday’s annual Gridiron dinner or coming into close contact with someone who was there. So far Pelosi is “asymptomatic”, according to her spokesperson, and no one connected to the event has become seriously ill.

In recent weeks, many Americans who have been mostly cautious for the past two years — like Pelosi — have taken off their masks and gathered indoors. Many of them will encounter BA.2 this spring; Gridiron-type outbreaks will not be uncommon. But unless current trends change drastically, it probably won’t herald another terrifying surge. Instead, it may signal a more welcome development: a time when “living with the virus” ceases to be a way of denying reality and finally begins to be realistic.


How are vaccination rates affecting the latest COVID surge? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.

Experts say BA.2 could be more of a “bump” than a push.  Is this the future of COVID?

 |  Today Headlines

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