A vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine
A vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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Just when you think the only changes in the air are the pollen count and spring spirit of cherry blossoms, another COVID variant pollinates the picture. The omicron subvariant BA.2, which spreads 80 percent faster than the highly contagious omicron variant, is expected to soon dominate nationwide. In the DMV, BA.2 accounts for about 30 percent of COVID-19 cases, NBC Washington reports

Just four weeks ago, the subvariant accounted for only approximately 9.38 percent of COVID cases in the District, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The ensuing rise comes amid some of the lowest national rates of COVID vaccination since the early days of the vaccination program. On Wednesday, the weekly average of vaccinations fell below 182,000 per day, according to data from the PostDC Health data shows a recent rise in COVID cases in the District, from a weekly case rate of 49.9 to 62.5 from March 6 to March 13.

Let’s be clear: This newly emerging and rapidly spreading variant isn’t all that new. Scientists first detected the subvariant BA.2 in November along with other sub-variants when they discovered the original omicron variant, BA.1. All omicron branches have a distinct set of mutations. Back then, the original omicron variant was much more common than any other subvariant, and quickly spread worldwide. But in early 2022, BA.2 emerged from obscurity, accounting for a larger proportion of new COVID-19 infections. 

From what scientists know so far, BA.2 is equipped to overtake even the record-breaking omicron rate of transmission, the Times reports. In its spike protein—the part of the virus most vital to infecting cells—BA.2 has 8 mutations omicron doesn’t, differences linked to higher transmissibility. A preliminary study in Denmark showed that people infected with BA.2 are a lot more likely to infect people in their home than those with omicron. In a study in Hong Kong, scientists estimated that the virus doubled every 1.28 days during a BA.2 outbreak in a public housing complex. 

Now for some less alarming news: Just as omicron, though more transmissible than previous variants like delta, generally caused less severe symptoms, the same appears to be true with BA.2. A large real-world study from National Institute of Communicable Diseases in South Africa showed that BA.2 doesn’t make people sicker than omicron. Also, reinfection with BA.2 is likely rare, based on studies in Denmark and the U.K. pending peer review. 

What do the public health experts say? Another COVID surge isn’t likely right now, though cases might rise, White House Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci recently told ABC’s This Week. The surge might happen this winter, after cases decline over the spring and summer, Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, told CNBC. 

During a Monday presser, Mayor Muriel Bowser said the District’s ready. D.C. “got hit pretty hard with omicron, but our public health system withstood it,” she said.   

But some DMV residents and local officials are still nervous. Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich cautioned his constituents to take BA.2 seriously to avoid a delta surge repeat, NBC Washington reports

“If we ignore the new subvariant and think the pandemic is over, not get regularly tested, or refuse to get vaccinated or boosted, then we should expect … the possibility of straining our [sic] healthcare system yet again,” Elrich said. 

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

  • To see today’s COVID-19 data, visit our coronavirus tracker.
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By Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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By Alex Koma (tips? akoma@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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By Kelyn Soong (tips? ksoong@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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