NYS reports two new Omicron subvariants, emergency extended

— Graph from the New York State Department of Health

ALBANY COUNTY — The recent high number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Central New York led the state’s health department to investigations that determined the first reported instances in the United States of significant community spread of two new subvariants of Omicron.

On Thursday, the health department announced the emergence of BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1. Both variants are sub-lineages of BA.2, which now accounts for 80.6 percent of COVID-19 infections in New York.

Currently, the health department said, there is no evidence of increased disease severity by these subvariants, though the department is closely monitoring for any changes.

The subvariants have been estimated to have a 23 percent to 27 percent growth advantage above the original BA.2 variant. 

The findings are based on newly available data in the public database, GISAID (Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data), as well as additional data submitted directly to the Wadsworth Center from sequencing laboratories in New York.

 For the month of March, BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1 rose to collectively comprise more than 70 percent prevalence in Central New York and more than 20 percent prevalence in the neighboring Finger Lakes region, the health department found. Data for April indicate that levels in Central New York are now above 90 percent.

“We are alerting the public to two Omicron subvariants, newly emerged and rapidly spreading in upstate New York, so New Yorkers can act swiftly,” said Mary Bassett, the state’s health commissioner, in a statement. “While these subvariants are new, the tools to combat them are not.

“These tools will work if we each use them: get fully vaccinated and boosted, test following exposure, symptoms, or travel, consider wearing a mask in public indoor spaces, and consult with your healthcare provider about treatment if you test positive.”


Emergency extended

Both the state and federal governments have renewed their public health emergencies because of the ongoing pandemic.

Xavier Becerra, secretary of Health and Human Services, made the renewal effective April 16; the federal emergency was first declared in January 2020 and has been extended eight times.

On Friday, governor Kathy Hochul extended her disaster emergency declaration another 30 days until May 15.

She cited the continuing Omicron surge and said “New York continues to experience COVID-19 transmission, with the rate of new COVID-19 hospital admissions remaining at over 100 new admissions a day” and also said, “The state must pursue a coordinated approach to ensure hospital capacity statewide is able to meet regional needs.”

Hochul said, too, “The State government must support the municipalities and counties in their efforts to facilitate and administer vaccinations and tests for COVID-19, and to prevent the virus from continuing to spread at such rates.”


Albany County

Meanwhile, in his second COVID release of the week, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy reported on Friday that the county’s seven-day average of new daily COVID-19 cases is now up to 105.1 and its most recent seven-day average of COVID cases per 100,000 is now up to 22.5. The county has an average percent positive rate of 7.7 percent.

McCoy also reported six new COVID hospitalizations since Thursday and 16 new hospitalizations overall since Tuesday, the day of his last release.

There are now 29 county residents hospitalized with the coronavirus – a net increase of eight since Tuesday. Of those hospital patients, there are still three currently in intensive-care units.

Albany County’s COVID-19 death toll remains at 541.

“The number of new COVID infections identified in the last 24 hours is the highest we’ve reported since February 9 and our daily average has now risen above 100,” McCoy said in the release. “Additionally, the last time we had this many residents hospitalized with the virus was back on February 25. On a brighter note, I haven’t had to report a new COVID death since April 6.”

Deaths typically lag several weeks behind infections.

“As we respond to the latest surge, it’s critical that more people get vaccinated and get their booster shots — including those children who are eligible — so that we can continue to prevent as many serious illnesses and deaths as possible. I’m also encouraging those with weakened immune systems and underlying health conditions to take additional precautions for now to ensure their own safety,” McCoy urged.

Albany County has yet to break the three-quarters mark as 74.4 percent of county residents are now fully vaccinated.

The governor’s office on Friday reported a seven-day average of 28.8 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 of population statewide. Central New York remains the highest at 53.09 and the Capital Region remains the lowest at 25.86 per 100,000 population.

“This holiday weekend will be a time of celebration for many of us, making it all the more important that we take the proper precautions against the spread of this virus,” Hochul said in the release. “There are two new and highly contagious variants circulating, so if you are traveling get tested, and if you test positive please stay home and consult your doctor on available treatments.

“Be smart, wear your mask if you’re around vulnerable family members and think it’s necessary, and make sure the friends and family you are spending time with are vaccinated and boosted if eligible.”


Breath test

On Thursday, the United States Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for the first COVID-19 diagnostic test that detects chemical compounds in breath samples.

The test can be performed by a trained operator at doctor’s offices, hospitals, and mobile testing sites, using an instrument about the size of a piece of carry-on luggage, the announcement said. 

“The FDA continues to support the development of novel COVID-19 tests with the goal of advancing technologies that can help address the current pandemic and better position the U.S. for the next public health emergency,” said Jeff Shuren, M.D., J.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, in a statement.

InspectIR expects to be able to produce about 100 instruments per week, which can each be used to evaluate about 160 samples per day. At this level of production, testing capacity is expected to increase by about 64,000 samples per month.

A large study of 2,409 individuals, including those with and without symptoms, validated the performance of the breath test, the FDA said. In the study, the test was shown to have 91.2 percent sensitivity (the percent of positive samples the test correctly identified) and 99.3 percent specificity (the percent of negative samples the test correctly identified).

The study also showed that, in a population with only 4.2 percent of individuals who are positive for the virus, the test had a negative predictive value of 99.6 percent, meaning that people who receive a negative test result are likely truly negative in areas of low disease prevalence. The test performed with similar sensitivity in a follow-up clinical study focused on the Omicron variant.


Boosters for young children

Pfizer and BioNTech on Thursday announced positive results for a booster vaccine for children ages 5 to 11.

Currently, booster shots have emergency authorization only for people aged 12 and older.

In the Pfizer-BioNTech study, which has not been peer reviewed, 140 children got a booster shot six months after their second vaccination. A month after getting the booster shot, the children showed a sixfold increase in antibody levels against the original version of the virus.

Laboratory tests of blood samples from a subgroup of 30 children, the announcement said, also showed 36 times the level of neutralizing antibodies against the Omicron variant compared with levels after only two doses.

The studies did not show the effectiveness against the coronavirus nor how long the antibodies would last.

Pfizer and BioNTech plan to submit a request for emergency use authorization of a booster dose for children ages 5 through 11 in the U.S. in the coming days, the announcement said.

More Regional News

  • Albany County is proposing to build a solar farm at 897 Watervliet Shaker Road in Colonie, near the airport. County residents can learn about the project and share their views at two upcoming meetings.  

  • “The classroom disruptions caused by the pandemic have hurt New York’s students,” said Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli this week as he announced the results of his analysis. “Academic losses were greater for younger students, with fourth grade scores dropping more than the national average. School districts must act quickly to take full advantage of available resources to help students that are most in need get caught up, before time runs out.”

  • “Continued Federal Reserve Board actions to raise interest rates in response may dampen national and local economic prospects, which, if not carefully managed, risks causing a recession,” says the state’s comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli in his report on the executive budget.

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