In this photo illustration, an Omicron BA.2, a newly seen...

In this photo illustration, an Omicron BA.2, a newly seen coronavirus sub-variant is seen on a screen and a hand holding a medical syringe in front of it.  Credit: Sipa USA via AP/Pavlo Gonchar / SOPA Images

A new subvariant of the omicron variant of COVID-19 has been circulating in the region.

We talked with experts about whether the trend should be concerning, especially when restrictions to keep the virus at bay are being reduced.

What is the BA. 2 variant?

It is an omicron subvariant similar to the BA.1 strain that has been seen in cases in our communities since December, but with some subtle differences, said Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious disease expert at New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health.

Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Medicine, said the BA. 2 does not seem to be more virulent than BA.1. The current COVID-19 vaccine, which provided protection for hospitalization and death in most populations, "also seems to provide the same level of protection against the BA. 2 variant, which is good news for all," she said.

Some of the vaccine companies are starting clinical trials using a vaccine specifically against the BA. 1 variant. "If these move into clinical care, they will also provide protection against the BA. 2 variant," she said.

What does the latest data tell us about the presence of BA. 2?

Hirschwerk said that "there has been a gradual increase in the proportion of all omicron variants that are BA. 2 in the past few weeks." Nachman added that "there is strong evidence that it is present in the U.K. and in most, if not all European countries. Interestingly, it’s currently the dominant strain in Denmark."

What can we make of the upswing of COVID-19 in wastewater at some collection points in the area?

Dr. Alan Bulbin, director of infectious disease at Catholic Health St. Francis Hospital & Heart Center in Roslyn, said that "finding of increasing virus in wastewater usually predicts higher numbers of overall cases will follow." Hirschwerk said that "it supports that there is a gradual increase in the proportion of omicron strains that are of the BA. 2 subvariant."

How transmissible is it?

Bulbin said it is more transmissible than BA. 1, "but with similar disease — mostly mild to moderate cases, especially in persons with any immunity. If someone previously had omicron, they likely will not be at risk."

Hirschwerk agreed that while it is more transmissible, "protection against BA. 2 infection appears to be largely intact in those individuals previously infected with BA.1. The current vaccines also induce an immune response that provides protection against severe illness."

What's the prognosis of virus trends for Long Island and the region?

"It certainly looks like it’s better now than the same time last year and will hopefully continue to improve as the weather warms up and people shift to more outdoor socialization," said Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University. "However, we are also seeing some headwinds including the plateaued COVID infection and hospitalization rates in Suffolk County, which reflect real increases in the growth coupled with the diffusion of BA. 2 sub-variant."

Bulbin said that "BA. 2 as predicted will extend the omicron phase by another month or two, but I don't expect a similar, large surge in hospitalizations." Hirschwerk said that with COVID-19 rates "pretty low," and a high proportion of the population vaccinated or recently infected with omicron, "it seems unlikely that BA. 2 will induce a substantial surge.."

How concerned should people be given that BA. 2 is circulating just as restrictions are being rolled back? What precautions can you take?

Clouston said that "it’s bad timing to see a new sub-variant that coincides with restrictions being rolled back — especially since mask use was some people’s only mitigation effort. Precautions are the same with BA. 2 at this point as previous variants and include either vaccination or mask usage but can also include air filtration and fans.

When using masks, then it is important to invest in high-quality masks, like the KN95 masks. They do a better job." Hirschwerk said that people should stay up to date with their vaccinations, get tested if they have symptoms, and "remain mindful of your situation in crowded indoor settings so long as there remains transmission in the community." Bulbin said that "I would still consider your personal risk and mask up in crowded, poorly ventilated areas."

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