A subvariant of the omicron variant of COVID-19 that is believed to be even more contagious than the initial version has been detected in Wisconsin, including in Dane County, health officials said Thursday.
Public Health Madison and Dane County said one case of the subvariant, known as BA.2, has been found in the county. Fewer than five cases have been detected statewide through the genome sequencing done on a small proportion of samples, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, a chief medical officer with the state Department of Health Services. He didn’t say where the other cases were found and noted many more are likely present but undetected.
BA.2 appears to be 1.5 times more contagious than BA.1, the original form of omicron, according to a Danish study released last week in preprint form, meaning it hasn’t undergone the peer review typically done for articles in traditional scientific journals.
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So far, data have not suggested BA.2 causes more severe illness than BA.1 or better evades immune protection provided by vaccines, health officials have said. The discovery of BA.2 in Wisconsin, which was expected, comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been dropping.
“As for how residents should respond, the same advice applies as with any variant: Get vaccinated, stay up-to-date on your boosters, wear a well-fitted mask, stay home if you’re sick, and get tested if you need one,” Public Health Madison and Dane County spokesperson Morgan Finke said.
Scientists have been debating whether the highly transmissible omicron variant, which typically causes less severe disease than the delta variant that surged late last summer, might lead COVID-19 to become an endemic disease — regularly present, but in predictable ways that don’t disrupt society as much.
Some have argued that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 remains unpredictable and other variants are likely to emerge.
Westergaard said COVID-19 is likely to become endemic this year, but perhaps with new variants that spark periodic spikes in cases. People might be advised to wear face masks and take other precautions during times of high activity and told they can ease up during low activity periods, he said.
“Our expectation, our hope, is that we see more of the same, which is a decline, day-by-day, week-by-week,” he said. “Whether the new variation, if it takes hold, will cause that decline to occur more slowly is something that’s been theorized.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, said last month it’s not clear if COVID-19 might become endemic this year. “The answer is we do not know that,” he said at the World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda online conference.
Wisconsin reported 4,781 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, for a daily average of 4,679, down from the daily average peak of 18,858 on Jan. 19. Despite the decline, activity is still considered critically high in all 72 counties.
There were 1,387 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Thursday, down from a peak of 2,278 on Jan. 12, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association. Among those patients, 278 were in intensive care, down from a peak of 488 on Jan. 12, with Wednesday being the first time the tally dropped below 300 since mid-November.
Dane County had 142 patients with COVID-19 in hospitals as of Thursday, the lowest level since Dec. 30, including 30 in intensive care, the lowest since Nov. 15. The peaks were 202 patients on Jan. 11 and 49 in the ICU on Nov. 19, 2020.
Since last month, some 117 Wisconsin National Guard members trained to become certified nursing assistants have worked at 17 nursing homes, to help open beds to take patients who no longer need to be in hospitals. The facilities include Waunakee Manor.
The initial omicron variant was first detected in Wisconsin in early December and by the end of that month became the dominant strain. Vaccination, including booster shots, is the best tool against BA.2 or BA.1, health officials said. As of Thursday, 59.5% of Wisconsin residents, including 77.3% of those in Dane County, were fully vaccinated, not necessarily including boosters.
“We can’t use a crystal ball to see what COVID-19 will bring us next, but we do know the now approved vaccines for COVID-19 work against these variants when we are fully vaccinated,” Dr. Nasia Safdar, a UW Health infectious disease specialist, said in a statement. “We can do our parts to prevent prolonging this pandemic by getting vaccinated and getting our booster shots.”
Wisconsin residents not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 were 10 times more likely to be hospitalized with the virus and 14 times more likely to die from it than those fully vaccinated in December, according to the state health department.
In Dane County, a person not fully vaccinated was seven times more likely to test positive for COVID-19, 57 times more likely to be hospitalized with it and 58 times more likely to die from it in December than a person who was fully vaccinated and had a booster or additional dose, the city-county health department said.
On Wednesday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said unvaccinated people nationally were 97 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who are vaccinated and boosted. She cited data from the week ending Dec. 4, when the omicron variant had not yet become the dominant strain.