The more infectious offshoot of the COVID-19 Omicron variant known as BA.2 makes up close to half of the cases in New York State, according to recent measurements by health officials in Albany.
Scientists at the Health Department’s Wadsworth Center lab have been sequencing test results from across the Empire State and found that 42% contained the new subvariant that has fueled another rise in new cases overseas in Europe.
However, New York’s state Health Commissioner Mary Bassett said during a COVID-19 briefing with Governor Kathy Hochul Monday that officials don’t expect cases to spike like they have across the Atlantic.
“It’s been creeping up, but it hasn’t been the cliffs that all of us recognize with Omicron,” Bassett told reporters on March 21.
“We all know the familiar Omicron spike, and in other countries they have seen what looks like a familiar spike related to the BA.2 variant. We haven’t seen that in this state and we are monitoring it,” Bassett added.
BA.2 is more transmissible than the original Omicron variant, but it does not appear to cause worse illness or better evade vaccine immunity, Bassett said.
Cases per 100,000 people rose from eight last week to 11 — an almost 30% increase — but Governor Hochul emphasized that the relative rise is still a far cry from the rates seen during the first Omicron wave when that figure soared to 400 cases per 100,000.
“We’ve learned a lot, we know how to handle this,” Hochul said. “We are not in an alarmist mode, we’re not panicking over this. We’re just watching the numbers and want to make sure everyone knows what we know at the same time.”
Monday was the first COVID-19 briefing Hochul gave since the end of February, when the Omicron wave was receding.
Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams have been lifting mask and vaccine mandates in schools and businesses since the beginning of the month, with public transit and healthcare facilities remaining among the few places where New Yorkers still have to don face coverings.
The latest state data shows that there were new 1,099 cases on March 20, down from around 2,000 daily over the past days, and well below winter surge when cases peaked at more than 90,000 a day in early January.
The seven-day average positivity rate was at 1.92% Sunday and there were 901 hospitalizations and six deaths —all figures that were still far lower than two months ago.
Bassett urged New Yorkers to get tested as soon as possible if they have any flu-like symptoms, such as a fever, cough, or diarrhea, and for all those eligible to get a booster shot of the vaccine.
State data show that almost half, or 43.5%, of people in the state who can get a booster have yet to do so, and the governor pushed more New Yorkers to roll up their sleeves for the extra dose.
“The booster is the best protection against this variant,” said Hochul.
Hochul added the state is ready to start giving fourth doses as soon as the federal government signs off on it.