Covid cases rise in north-eastern US, driven by the BA.2 subvariant
"The subvariant of omicron that’s more transmissible than BA.1 was responsible for an estimated 86% of new US cases last week
Covid cases are on the rise in the north-eastern part of the US, as many Americans travel and gather together for spring break and religious holidays.
The rise is being driven by BA.2, a subvariant of omicron which is more transmissible than its sibling BA.1, and was responsible for an estimated 86% of new Covid-19 cases nationwide last week, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
With precautions having been relaxed in many places earlier this year, experts have been looking at whether BA.2 will lead to another surge. “This is what the beginning of surges have looked like” in the past, said Julia Raifman, assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.
The rise in cases is regardless expected to result in disruptions to school and work as more people become ill. The US is now at “a key point to trigger action”, Raifman said. “If we take decisive action to reduce the transmission, then we will reduce case growth… and if we don’t, then we’re really leaving it to the virus to decide what’s next.”
Case counts across America remain comparatively low, and rates are still falling in several parts of the country. But the US overall is seeing a tick upward in numbers, with an average of 30,000 people testing positive in the US each day, compared to about 26,000 last week, according to the CDC.
Washington DC, where the mayor, Muriel Bowser, and the US House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, each declared they’d contracted Covid cases last week, has one of the highest two-week average increase. Rhode Island, Maryland, Kansas, Oregon, New Jersey, Connecticut and New York all saw more than 60% increases.
Philadelphia was the first city to reinstate its indoor mask mandate on Monday, in an attempt to stave off a rise in hospitalizations, which a University of Pennsylvania model predicts may rise in coming weeks. The city will also add requirements to show proof of vaccination if cases continue rising.
The White House renewed its mask mandate for public transportation for another two weeks on Wednesday.
Several universities across the US, including Columbia, American, Georgetown, George Washington, Johns Hopkins and Rice, are also returning to mask mandates on campus.
US hospitalizations for Covid are at record low levels, however, with 74% of hospital beds currently in use for all causes across the country. But hospitalizations can be a lagging indicator, so it’s not clear yet whether BA.2 will hit the health system hard.
Deaths are holding steady at slightly above 500 each day. Doctors hope that access to treatments, including monoclonal antibodies and antiviral medications for those who are most vulnerable, may stem a rise in Covid-related hospitalizations and death.
But federal funding for these medications is running out, without a new deal in place yet. Only 1.5m of a planned 10m courses of the antiviral Paxlovid, for instance, have been delivered to states and territories.
Hospitalizations and death aren’t the only severe outcomes – long Covid is also a major concern, Raifman said. Official case counts are also being affected by the prevalence of home testing and the lack of affordable testing for those without insurance, she added.
“We’re really going backwards in our response, even as the virus remains with us.”