BALTIMORE, Md — With spring in bloom and more people heading outdoors, the past COVID-19 winter may seem like a distant memory.
Yet, the omicron variant isn’t fading away.
“There were three different viruses that were called omicron. We called them BA.1, BA.2 and BA.3,” said Dr. Andrew Pekosz of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
He said the first omicron variant hit the U.S. this past winter.
Now, there’s a second omicron variant – called BA.2 -- that appears to be more transmissible, but not necessarily deadlier. It’s now the dominant strain in much of the world, including Europe.
“Europe has shown, at least for the past year, that they are anywhere from two to three weeks ahead of us, with respect to what their COVID-19 waves look like,” Dr. Pekosz said. “So, over the next couple of weeks, we should start to see perhaps an increase in COVID-19 cases.”
More than half of all COVID cases in the U.S. are now the BA.2 omicron variant.
There are already indications that COVID hospitalizations are up in parts of New England and case numbers are starting to rise in New York City, where COVID cases are up 92% in the past two weeks. Still, the positivity rate remains low there and across the U.S. - hovering just over 2%. Experts say that rate needs to remain below 5%, so it doesn’t become a problem. If it rises, there are a few things that can protect you.
“It really starts and ends with the vaccines,” Dr. Pekosz said.
High-quality masks do help, he said. However, most places in the U.S. eased COVID mask guidelines.
There is one more tool, though, in the arsenal against COVID-19.
“One of the important things that are becoming available more and more now are antivirals that can be used to treat people who test positive for COVID-19,” Dr. Pekosz said. “Antivirals do work, but they have to be taken within five days of symptom onset for them to have their maximum effect - and that can be a challenge.”
That is why the new federal “Test to Treat” program may become critical. The program helps those in vulnerable groups, who test positive for COVID, get antivirals right away.
“Prevention is always preferred to treatment,” Dr. Pekosz said, “but the antivirals will give us another tool to help lower that severe disease incident.”
All of it happening as a new variant and a new spring season come together at the same time.