Tuesday, June 28th, 2022

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The presence of COVID-19’s BA.2 strain — an offshoot of the original omicron variant — has grown steadily in New Jersey. The subvariant known as “stealth omicron” made up 18 percent of the state’s sampled cases in late February — compared to just 1.8 percent in the prior month, according to New Jersey’s latest surveillance report.

BA.2 appears 30 percent more contagious than BA.1 — the omicron variant that caused record-breaking cases and near-record COVID-19 hospitalizations during recent months in New Jersey. The stealth strain has recently sparked record or near-record outbreaks throughout East Asia and Europe.

The subvariant’s presence has grown also nationally. BA.2 makes up nearly a quarter of COVID infections in the U.S., from around 1 in 10 new cases a week prior, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The most recent CDC surveillance data breaks the numbers down into regions. New Jersey’s “region” includes New York, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Thirty-nine percent of cases circulating those states and territories last week represent BA.2, according to the CDC’s estimates.

The strain, however, may not create a COVID wave in the United States, as it has in other countries, according to Dr. Deborah Dowell, the CDC’s chief medical officer for COVID response.

Find out what’s happening in Waynewith free, real-time updates from Patch.

“The speculation I’ve seen is that it may extend the curve going down of case rates of omicron, but is unlikely to cause another surge the way we’ve seen, that we saw initially with omicron,” Dowell said last weekend during a webinar.

BA.2 may give New Jersey its first major test since the state removed its last major mask regulations this month — mandates in K-12 schools, child care settings and state-government buildings.

But health officials remain uncertain whether BA.2 will create another major COVID wave in New Jersey or the United States. That’s partially because it’s difficult to project how severely emerging strains will affect populations

“It is hard to predict whether a surge in BA.2 will translate to increased hospitalizations/deaths,” said Dr. Tina Tan, assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health. “In general, in order for a variant to ‘out-compete’ other variants and become more prevalent, they need to have increased transmissibility and/or the ability to evade immune response, meaning that the variant can infect those who have been vaccinated or previously infected.”

BA.2 appears more contagious than BA.1. And people who caught the original omicron variant can get re-infected, but studies suggest infection from the former provides “strong protection” against re-infection from the latter, according to evidence the World Health Organization cites. The WHO also found no difference in severity between the variants.

The stealth strain has doubled in proportion every two weeks in New Jersey, according to the state health department. State officials first detected BA.2 in the state Jan. 26. Here’s how much BA.2 has grown in terms of the percentage of sampled cases it represents, according to the state health department:

COVID hospitalizations continue to decline in New Jersey. The state health department reported 438 patients in hospitals with confirmed or suspected COVID as of Tuesday — down from the omicron peak of 6,089 on Jan. 11 and New Jersey’s lowest tally since late July.

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