Drugmaker Moderna has asked the FDA to authorize a fourth COVID-19 booster for adults amid concerns over fading vaccine protection, while on Long Island, virus numbers have inched back up, fueled partly by a new omicron subvariant, BA. 2.
The Massachussets-based pharmaceutical company made the request Thursday, according to a news release, "to provide flexibility" to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and medical providers to determine the "appropriate use" of a second booster dose of the mRNA vaccine, "including for those at higher risk of COVID-19 due to age or comorbidities."
On Tuesday, Pfizer and its partner BioNTech asked the Food and Drug Administration to authorize an additional booster for seniors, saying data from Israel suggests older adults would benefit.
Uncertainty about the evolving virus and the BA. 2 subvariant had Long Island experts Thursday stopping short of ruling out the need for renewed mask mandates and other mitigation efforts if case numbers keep rising.
But it's still too early to draw any dire conclusions, they said, and both the region and the rest of the state have generally maintained a steady downward trend in new COVID-19 cases since the omicron variant peaked in January.
"I don’t think we should panic about BA. 2 as it enters New York," said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of public health and epidemiology for Northwell Health, "and I don’t think we should panic about these numbers. But by the same token we can’t bury our head in the sand and just move on from COVID and think that it’s completely gone, because it’s not."
What to know
- Long Island COVID-19 numbers have inched up after bottoming out with the end of the omicron surge, fueled partly by a new subvariant, BA. 2.
- The subvariant now makes up 38.5% of all confirmed COVID-19 cases in New York State.
- Medical experts on Long Island said it remains too early to make any dire conclusions but BA. 2 serves as more evidence that the coronavirus remains a health threat.
The BA. 2 subvariant now makes up 38.5% of all confirmed COVID-19 cases in New York State, the state Department of Health said Thursday, citing the most recent available test results.
"While the proportion of BA. 2 in New York has risen, it continues to rise more slowly than in many other countries," the department said in a statement. "The Department continues to monitor the situation closely."
The health department also noted that while case rates of COVID-19 "in some areas have seen increases, hospitalizations have largely not."
The seven-day positivity average on Long Island hit its low point on March 9 at 1.52% after soaring to a record-breaking level in January to nearly 27%.
But in the past week or so, the seven-day rate has headed back up, hitting 1.69% on Tuesday.
The average number of new daily cases on Long Island hit a low of 181 on March 9, but have also risen — hitting 207 on Monday. The record peak during the omicron surge in January was about 12,000 new daily cases.
In the latest test results released Thursday, numbers dropped slightly, to a 1.67% positivity average and 196 daily cases.
Fading protection from previous COVID-19 shots and the potential for new variants or subvariants has prompted U.S. officials to begin the groundwork aimed at delivering additional booster doses to help prevent serious disease and death. The White House has urged Congress to approve more funding to secure additional doses of the COVID-19 vaccines, either for additional booster shots or variant-specific immunizations.
Dr. Uzma Syed, an infectious disease specialist at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip, said the overall increase in Long Island's COVID-19 numbers is not surprising — though certainly unwelcome news.
"People were happy to come down from the omicron surge and have a breather," she said. But medical experts "knew that the pandemic is not over, even though that has pretty much been the language everywhere, because as much as people want to be done with COVID-19, it’s not entirely done with us yet."
Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, said the COVID-19 numbers are still low, and warm weather is on the way, so it’s too early to be alarmed by the uptick.
But BA. 2 is even more contagious than the original highly contagious omicron variant, he said, and is causing a "dramatic" increase in cases in Europe and the United Kingdom.
The recent increase in numbers on Long Island "is not dramatic, which I think is good news," he said. "If this is as fast as it grows, then I think that our unmasking maybe was OK."
Even so, Clouston said, it’s unclear whether "the plateauing and slow growth is all we’re going to see, or are we seeing in essence the tail end of [omicron] and then an explosive growth of BA. 2," he said. He is optimistic, though, that Long Island will avoid another major surge.
Several factors are contributing to the COVID-19 indicators inching up after a weekslong sharp decline, according to other experts.
Mitigation measures such as mandatory masks in schools have been lifted, and the immunity provided by vaccines or infection is waning, at the same time the BA. 2 variant has arrived, they said.
"I’m still hoping that it won’t be until the fall that we see significant increases which will merit additional vaccine" such as a fourth dose, Farber said. "But let’s face it, all the masks are off, the boosters have slowed down dramatically, and each month that goes by, the immunity from either having had omicron or the vaccine starts to wane."
He added: "I don’t think there are any dramatic surprises. The question is going to be at what rate this happens."
Infectious disease specialists noted that omicron in general is milder than other strains of COVID-19 and hopefully will lead to fewer hospitalizations and deaths, but it still has the capacity to severely infect or kill — especially the unvaccinated or those with serious underlying health conditions.
"We are not out of the woods by any means," Syed said.
With Matt Clark and AP