Infection rates have increased, but the subvariant does not appear to cause more severe illness, NYS Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said. Credit: NYS Governor's Office

A new omicron subvariant now accounts for about 42% of COVID-19 cases in New York State, but there's no reason for New Yorkers to be overly alarmed by its spread, Gov. Kathy Hochul said on Monday.

In her first COVID-19 briefing in several weeks, Hochul said officials do not expect a major surge from the BA.2 subvariant, similar to the ones in late December and January with the original omicron strain.

But officials also noted that the virus is unpredictable. The BA.2 subvariant currently is fueling surges in the United Kingdom and other countries.

“We are not in an alarmist mode. We’re not panicking,” Hochul said at the Wadsworth Center state lab in Albany.

         WHAT TO KNOW

  • Nearly half of new confirmed COVID-19 cases in New York State are a new Omicron subvariant, Gov. Kathy Hochul said, though New Yorkers should not be alarmed.
  • Hochul said officials do not expect another surge, even though the BA.2 subvariant is fueling surges in the U.K. and elsewhere.
  • One leading medical expert said the state should keep open the option of reinstituting mandates for masks and other measures if rates soar.

The number of confirmed daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen recently from 8 to 11 per 100,000 residents, said Dr. Mary T. Bassett, the state health commissioner. But that is still a far cry from the 400 per 100,000 residents the state saw during the record-breaking omicron surge around the beginning of the year, Hochul noted.

Bassett said that even with the growth of cases here and the surge in other countries, “We don’t expect to see a steep surge in cases in New York State.”

The subvariant is more transmissible than the original omicron strain, Bassett said, but doesn't appear to cause more severe illness.

Hochul and Bassett gave no indication the state is considering reinstituting widespread masking or social distancing requirements.

Bassett noted that with the growth of home testing kits, it is likely the state is not recording some of the new positive cases. But she said the rate of growth in cases here is much lower than in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

One leading medical expert on Long Island said Hochul struck the right tone in not sounding alarm bells but remaining vigilant.

“BA.2 is slowly creeping up week by week,” said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of public health and epidemiology for Northwell Health. “It’s pretty clear that this is going to be the predominant strain just the way it became in Norway and is spreading around the world."

But “we’re still in a pretty good position. So I don’t think we should panic," he said. “The rates are modestly higher but not dramatically higher. The hospitalizations are stable."

In the latest test results, the seven-day positivity average on Long Island on Sunday hit 1.95%, after reaching a low of about 1.5% on March 9. It has been increasing since then. But it remains nowhere near the record high of nearly 27% in early January.

Long Island registered 159 new confirmed cases on Sunday. Statewide, six people, including one in Suffolk County, died on Sunday of causes linked to the virus. Hospitalizations remained steady at about 900.

The governor and health commissioner pointed to testing and turning around lagging booster rates as key mechanisms for fighting the BA.2 spread. 

Statewide, 44.6% of fully vaccinated residents have received at least one booster shot, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that's current as of Sunday. On Long Island, that percentage is 44%. 

Those numbers changed little from last week, meaning few people got boosted.

Hochul said the emergence of the BA.2 subvariant here is a sign that the pandemic is not over, and will likely continue into the future in some form.

“We never had a high five moment and said it’s over. We’re in a new phase,” she said. But she emphasized that the reopening, with mask and social distancing mandates dropped, "should continue."

Farber said the state should keep open the option of reinstituting mandates for masks and other measures if rates soar.

“Opening up was great and it was time. The problem is if the situation changes it’s a lot more difficult to reinstate some of those things that people have put aside,” he said. But the virus is "clearly not disappearing. We have to always be ready to change course if necessary."

Bassett said that people can still wear their masks wherever they want, and should feel "comfortable" doing so.

Hochul said: "I don't anticipate a surge — but we have to be ready for anything. One thing we do know about this, about COVID, omicron and delta: [it is] wildly unpredictable."

With Matt Clark

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