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5 things to know about the COVID subvariant BA.2

The BA.2 subvariant is driving an increase of cases in Europe. What will happen to the U.S.?
Jonathan Pagliarulo, 11, gets tested for COVID-19, after vaccinated family members tested positive for the virus on Aug. 9, 2021, in North Miami. Though COVID-19 cases are falling in Florida and most of the country, epidemiologist and public health experts warn that the omicron subvariant called BA.2 is driving an increase in cases in Western Europe and elsewhere and may follow a familiar pattern with infections rising in the United States.
Jonathan Pagliarulo, 11, gets tested for COVID-19, after vaccinated family members tested positive for the virus on Aug. 9, 2021, in North Miami. Though COVID-19 cases are falling in Florida and most of the country, epidemiologist and public health experts warn that the omicron subvariant called BA.2 is driving an increase in cases in Western Europe and elsewhere and may follow a familiar pattern with infections rising in the United States. [ MARTA LAVANDIER | AP ]
Published Mar. 29

Florida is barely over the omicron wave that caused unprecedented numbers of COVID-19 cases and overwhelmed hospital systems with infected patients and staff. But a new subvariant of the coronavirus has already emerged and appears to be more contagious, raising concern that another pandemic wave of infections is on the way.

Though COVID-19 cases are falling in Florida and most of the country, epidemiologist and public health experts warn that the omicron subvariant called BA.2 is driving an increase in cases in Western Europe and elsewhere and may follow a familiar pattern with infections rising in the United States.

There are still many unknowns about the potential for BA.2 to spark another surge, including the level of baseline immunity from vaccination and prior infection, and the relaxation of masking, social distancing and other measures to mitigate transmission of the virus.

To understand what lies ahead, the Miami Herald interviewed public health experts about BA.2 and its potential to throw communities into disarray once again.

Related: Latest COVID variant is rising overseas. How will Florida fare?
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What do we know about BA.2?

The subvariant BA.2 was first identified in November when scientists discovered omicron. But scientists began to find BA.2 in larger proportions in January, including in Miami. BA.2 now accounts for more than half of cases in the Northeast and about one in five cases in the Southeast, including Florida.

BA.2 is about 50 percent to 60 percent more contagious than the original omicron variant, called BA.1, said Amber D’Souza, an epidemiologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. D’Souza said BA.2 appears to cause mild disease, like omicron, but that some small portion of the population is likely to experience severe illness and hospitalization.

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Does prior infection with omicron protect against BA.2?

It does appear that prior infection with omicron will protect against BA.2, said Stephen Kissler, a researcher in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Vaccination and prior infection appears to confer strong protection.

However, it is not clear how long immunity lasts, and for those with prior infections it can be difficult to tell when they got infected and with what virus.

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“One of the things that seems to be the case is that repeated exposures to SARS-CoV-2, especially through vaccination but also through previous infection, enhance your immunity. And they enhance not only the amount of immunity that you have but also the breadth of the immunity that you have, your ability to identify other sorts of viruses.”

Related: COVID researchers: Florida ‘cherry-picked’ our work in kid vaccine recommendation
• • •

Do vaccines/boosters protect against BA.2?

The vaccines and a third dose, called a booster, appear to protect against BA.2. Even if they do not prevent infection as well as they did against omicron, they do protect against severe disease and death from BA.2, said D’Souza.

“The initial data that we have suggests that we do have protection from immunization and previous infection to this variant. That protection is not as good as protection against the original (omicron) variant but it is still good against severe disease,” D’Souza said.

• • •

Will there be a BA.2 wave in the United States, Florida?

No one knows yet, but we will likely see an increase in cases as more communities lift mask ordinances and other mitigation measures. And cases have been rising in Western Europe, where COVID-19 surges have preceded waves in the United States often in the past two years.

Nationally, BA.2 accounts for about 35 percent of cases, with rates varying by region, according to data on variant proportions published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In South Florida, scientists tracking variants in the community are finding increasing numbers of BA.2, said David Andrews, a physician and associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. “We’re starting to see it mirror the national trends in terms of percentage and prevalence,” Andrews said.

Related: Florida limits COVID data to every 2 weeks, state says via meme
• • •

What precautions should I take in the coming weeks?

Epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists recommend that you check CDC and local health department data to assess the level of COVID-19 transmission in your community and take appropriate mitigation measures to reduce your risk of getting infected.

With cases still declining, many people are no longer wearing masks, said Anna Durbin, an infectious disease specialist and director of the Center for Immunization Research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“I don’t mask when I go into buildings. I go to restaurants. I’ve been eating out,” Durbin said. “When I travel, particularly because I’m planning a trip to Europe next week, I probably will wear a mask because rates are higher where I’m going. It really is situational dependent.”

• • •

How to get tested

Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find the free, public COVID-19 testing sites in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties.

Florida: The Department of Health has a website that lists testing sites in the state. Some information may be out of date.

The U.S.: The Department of Health and Human Services has a website that can help you find a testing site.

• • •

How to get vaccinated

The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:

Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your ZIP code.

More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.

Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.

TTY: 888-720-7489

Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.

• • •

More coronavirus coverage

OMICRON VARIANT: Omicron changed what we know about COVID. Here’s the latest on how the infectious COVID-19 variant affects masks, vaccines, boosters and quarantining.

KIDS AND VACCINES: Got questions about vaccinating your kid? Here are some answers.

BOOSTER SHOTS: Confused about which COVID booster to get? This guide will help.

BOOSTER QUESTIONS: Are there side effects? Why do I need it? Here’s the answers to your questions.

PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how seniors can stay safe from the virus.

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