Credit: (source: publichealth.jhu.edu)

Breanna Reeves |

As COVID-19 cases increase in the United Kingdom due to the rapid spread of a new Omicron subvariant, BA.2, health officials and researchers are monitoring the subvariant cases in the U.S. 

According to the World Health Organization, one of the key differences between BA.2 and Omicron (BA.1) is that BA.2 appears to be more transmissible than BA.1, as noted by initial studies. 

Over the last week, from March 13 through March 19, the subvariant accounted for approximately 34% of U.S. COVID-19 cases, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The subvariant was detected in California earlier in the year, however, does not yet appear to be a cause for major concern. The state continues to report increasing vaccination rates, currently at 74% statewide and low hospitalization rates. 

While local public health departments keep an eye out for updated guidelines regarding the new variant, health officials continue to encourage the public to be vigilant.

“[San Bernardino County] hasn’t received notable guidance on the new variant from the State or CDC yet, but when we do we will share that information with the public. In the meantime, the County is advising everyone to observe the existing general guidance – getting tested if exposed or experiencing symptoms, and isolating appropriately if testing positive,” said San Bernardino County Public Information Officer David Wert in an email.

Dr. Shunling Tsang, deputy public health officer at Riverside University Health System-Public Health, discussed what the public should know about the subvariant and the best way to protect themselves against COVID-19.

Q: What is the difference between this new COVID-19 variant and the existing Omicron?

Dr. Tsang: If you think about it, it’s related to the Omicron BA.1 variant. It’s essentially similar in that it’s Omicron, but it differs a little bit in its genetic sequence. So, it is distinctly different from BA.1, which is the one that was the dominant strain that caused the surge this winter.

Dr. Shunling Tsang, deputy public health officer at Riverside University Health System-Public Health. (source: ruhealth.org)

Q: Can we expect to see an increase in the new variant in the coming weeks or months as we no longer have strict masking guidelines?

Dr. Tsang: So, we’re seeing that a little bit under half of all the cases that are being sequenced is actually the BA.2 variant (in California). In the United States, as you said, we are seeing more of a BA.2 variant, although the BA.1 variant is still the dominant strain. But in the United States, we’re at about 34.9%, showing the Omicron BA.2 variant and this is just from the CDC. And the BA.1 variant is about 57.3% (of cases). In California, what we’re showing is that about 41.3% (are) BA.2 variants.

Q: And for the county, is Riverside also seeing any of those cases?

Dr. Tsang: When we get down to the county level, it gets a little bit harder because the the number of samples that are being sequenced is at a much smaller number, but we would assume that we would reflect what the state is seeing because we’ve been tracking fairly closely with how the state is seeing the trends overall.

Q: Can we expect to see a surge of BA.2 cases anytime soon?

Dr. Tsang: What we’re seeing so far (and) this is from the World Health Organization — they’ve been taking a look to see if people have been infected in the past with Omicron, the initial variants of the BA.1, whether or not they’re at high risk of reinfection of BA.2. So, we are seeing the infection occurring, however, initial data, at least from the population level, suggests that infection with BA.1 provides strong protection against reinfection from BA.2, at least from the limited data that we’re seeing. That doesn’t mean that you’re completely protected, though, because we do know that you can get reinfected with COVID. 

We still recommend that you wear your mask if you’re in an indoor setting with people you don’t know or in public spaces, and we recommend you get vaccinated because vaccines are still the best protection against COVID. So again, if you have not been vaccinated, we highly recommend that you get vaccinated, if you haven’t been boosted we highly recommend you get boosted.

Health officials recommend wearing a mask if you are in an indoor setting with people you do not know or in public spaces. (source: unomaha.edu)

Q: At this time, will a fourth shot, another booster shot, be necessary?

Dr. Tsang: Studies are taking a look at that right now. We’re going to wait and see what the data shows. I think what we’re seeing is that the initial vaccinations and boosters still continue to provide a high level of protection against serious complications of COVID which includes hospitalizations and deaths. We know that vaccines really work well in their current state against that serious infection where you have to be hospitalized in the Intensive Care Unit.

Q: What resources are available in the county, aside from those boosters? Can you talk about the availability of treatments in the county?

Dr. Tsang: There are now treatment options for COVID, where you don’t have to be in the hospital, which is fantastic. It’s really amazing how we’ve been able to utilize technology around this. On the web page (Riverside University Public Health System) itself, it gives you links to how you can seek out treatments. So, if you are at high risk for infection because you’ve been around someone who’s COVID positive, there is a medication called Evusheld that you can get to help protect you against getting COVID, especially if you’ve had high exposure. 

Evusheld can help protect those at  high risk of COVID-19 complications from getting the virus if they have had high exposure. (source: youtube.com)

Again, you can look and see who qualifies for that, because for [Evusheld] you have to have a high risk of complications. If you do have symptoms, and you go and get tested and you test positive for COVID, there are options for treatments as well. We have oral medications now as well as IV or IM, which is intramuscular (like a shot) to help treat patients who are positive with COVID, but not sick enough to come into the hospital yet. So, there’s a lot of treatment options available now. 
For COVID-19 treatment options in Riverside County, residents can visit the Riverside University Health System site to learn more about what is available.