New form of Omicron accounts for 42% of NYS COVID cases

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Governor Kathy Hochul said,  “We never had a high-five moment and said it’s over. We’re in a new phase; we’ve been adapting to the circumstance and reopening in a way that I still believe should continue.”

ALBANY COUNTY — A sub-lineage of the Omicron variant known as BA.2 now comprises about 42 percent of all COVID-19 cases in New York State, according to the state’s health commissioner, Mary Bassett.

She spoke on Monday afternoon at a press conference held by Governor Kathy Hochul at the state’s Wadsworth Center in Albany.

Hochul said repeatedly she was not sounding an alarm.

“We know how to handle this. We are not in an alarmist mode,”she said. “We’re not panicking over this. We’re just watching the numbers and want to make sure everyone knows what we know at the same time.”

BA.2 is more transmissible than the original variant, Bassett said, “but it does not appear to cause more severe illness and it doesn’t appear to have any more ability to evade the vaccination immunity.”

While BA.2 has been rising in the United States over the last few months, Bassett said, it is not rising at the steep rate of growth and dominance that it has in the United Kingdom and in Europe.

What the United States has been experiencing with BA.2, Bassett said, is a “creep up” rather than the familiar Omicron spike other countries have seen.

The patterns of transmission, she said, are related to vaccination coverage, people’s behavior, and the variant itself. While New York hasn’t seen the steep vertical rise it did with the original Omicron lineage in January, Bassett said, “This may change and we’ll be watching.”

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy noted a slight uptick in new COVID-19 cases in his Friday press release, which was typical of other places in the state, including New York City.

On Saturday, McCoy released a statement, saying, “I have confirmed with my doctor that I’ve contracted COVID-19. While I’m feeling under the weather, I’m thankful that I’m fully vaccinated and boosted, because this very well could have been much worse. I am isolating and recovering at home. It’s moments like this that remind us that COVID is still not done with us yet.”

Both Bassett and Hochul on Monday emphasized two main courses of action in dealing with the latest threat: People should get vaccinated, including booster shots, and people should immediately be tested for COVID-19 so they can be treated to stem the spread.

“We have not focused as a nation as much on the treatment capabilities,” said Hochul. She said she is keeping vaccination and testing sites open even though few people are currently using them because she doesn’t know “if it’s going to be a wave.”

Hochul went on, “I don’t anticipate a surge but we have to be ready for anything,” she said, calling COVID-19 “wildly unpredictable.”

“We need to use more of our capacity for treatment,” said Bassett. “We are not worried in this state at this time about access to treatment.”

Bassett told reporters that both health-care providers and patients are not fully aware of the oral treatment, meaning pills, that are available for people with mild to moderate cases of COVID-19.

If someone has flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough and even diarrhea, he or she should get tested right away.

The treatment window, said Bassett, is five days from the onset of symptoms. Getting treatment, she said, will reduce the risk of hospitalization as well as stemming the spread of the disease.

Bassett told reporters, “We continue to have the legal frameworks that are needed” should masks or social distancing be required to stem the spread.

Hochul last Wednesday had extended to April 15 the state of emergency, which had been set to expire on March 16.

While the mask mandate is currently removed in many settings, including schools, “people still have the choice to wear masks,” Bassett said, and should feel comfortable doing so.

She also noted that mask mandates remain in some settings, such as for public transportation and in health-care settings.

Bassett said, “It’s no surprise to us that we are seeing COVID cases tick up. We are seeing this as society opens up more and as this virus continues to adapt to human beings and to our vaccines.”

Sunday’s data showed New York City, which Bassett termed “the COVID gateway for our state,” has had a 30-percent increase from a week ago in new COVID cases.

Hochul noted that, while going from eight to 11 cases per 100,000 of population was indeed a 30 percent increase, that “just a few months ago, we had over 400 cases per 100,000.”

She also said, “We never had a high-five moment and said it’s over. We’re in a new phase; we’ve been adapting to the circumstance and reopening in a way that I still believe should continue.”

Bassett, when questioned, agreed the number of new cases may actually be higher since health departments are no longer tracking every case. With all the home testing, Bassett said, we are no longer capturing all the people who test positive.

“We shifted to focus on hospitalization,” she said, adding that the health department is now “paying attention to slope.”

Currently, Bassett said, hospital capacity is not a concern. 

Hospitalizations and deaths, Hochul said, are “lagging indicators,” meaning they follow infections.

Both Hochul and Bassett stressed the importance of vaccination and getting booster shots.

As of March 20, Bassett reported, 45 percent of New Yorkers eligible for a booster shot remain unboosted. She also said, “We have about 35 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 11 who are fully vaccinated and we need that number to go up.”

On a second booster shot, Hochul said, “We’re watching the issue in Washington about a fourth dose, and I’m very anxious to get that approval, if that’s determined by the CDC to be the next best defense against this variant. And as soon as it’s signed off, we’ll be out there.”

The two companies producing a messenger RNA vaccine against COVID-19 — Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech — have asked the Food and Drug Administration for emergency authorization for a second booster shot.

Pfizer has made the request for people 65 and older; Moderna has made the request for all adults.

Hochul reiterated that this is another reason to keep the vaccination sites in New York State up and running.

Hochul reported that 60 percent of New Yorkers 65 and older have had a booster shot and noted that population is the most vulnerable to the virus as are nursing-home residents of which 73 percent are boosted. She encouraged caregivers and family members to get those residents boosted.

In the Capital Region, 462,112 residents have received booster shots.



Kirsten St. George, chief of the Laboratory of Viral Diseases at the Wadsworth Center, said that, since the end of January, more than 99.5 percent of the sequences identified in New York State have been of the Omicron variant with, most recently, 42 percent being the new BA.2 sub-lineage.

Wadsworth’s tracking of the data is available on its website: website,

In addition to using human clinical samples, Wadsworth is also using wastewater surveillance to track the virus, St. George said, noting there is now monitoring in more than 50 counties. This will be expanded to cover all 64 of the state’s counties, she said.

“It will also use high speed sequencing methods to facilitate the rapid identification of variants and their circulation throughout the state. So we will have early warning signals at an even more widespread rate,” St. George said.

She thanked Hochul for including $5 million in her executive budget to expand surveillance.

Hochul had opened her press event by talking about her initiative “to really build back our health-care system, which had been knocked down so hard before the pandemic.”

Her budget proposed $750 million to rebuild the Wadsworth Center as well as $1.6 billion for upgrades in health care overall as part of a $10 billion plan.

Bassett said that Wadsworth had the second largest public health labs outside of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and called them “a true jewel in the crown of public health in New York.”

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