Coronavirus Chronicles

We Just Ditched Covid Restrictions. Is Stealth Omicron Going to Ruin Things?

The BA.2 subvariant is already surging in Hong Kong and Europe.

By Angela Cabotaje March 22, 2022

Unofficial BA.2 nickname: The Son of Omicron.

Indoor masking requirements and vaccine checks are no longer mandatory in King County, signaling a purposeful shift into the "live with it" phase of the pandemic. (Granted, some businesses are keeping those mandates going for a little longer out of an abundance of caution.)

Unfortunately, this all happens to coincide with the rise of a Covid subvariant—yes, such a thing exists because of course it does—called BA.2 or stealth omicron. BA.2 has about 40 mutations that make it distinct from regular ole omicron, known as BA.1, but not enough to grant it a completely new Greek moniker. For the record, it's been nicknamed "stealth" because it's not easily distinguishable from delta using a basic PCR test.

The World Health Organization has already noted that "BA.2 appears inherently more transmissible than BA.1" but that "BA.1 provides strong protection against reinfection with BA.2" and reports no difference in severity in communities with high immunity. The less medical jargon-y translation: It looks like (at least initially) stealth omicron is more contagious than original omicron, but that vaccines and natural immunity offer solid protection against severe illness or hospitalization.

In Europe, where coronavirus restrictions were lifted earlier than they were here, and Hong Kong, where only 35 percent of residents 80 years or older are fully vaccinated, BA.2 is inching Covid cases back up.

That's not happening yet in the United States, although keep in mind, we tend to trail Europe by a few weeks when it comes to surges. According to Centers for Disease Control data from early March, BA.2 accounted for about 23 percent of all new Covid cases in the United States. 

So what does this mean for King County, where nearly 85 percent of those eligible are fully vaccinated and more than 1 million people have gotten their booster?

In a March 11 media briefing, Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health—Seattle and King County noted that he's not concerned about a local BA.2 outbreak given the current numbers—yet. "As far as we know from our last update and from our colleagues at the University of Washington, the proportion of BA.2 [in King County] remains low." 

Whether that changes in the coming weeks as more masks come off and BA.2 has more opportunity to spread, only time will tell. But Duchin has some ominous words for those 15 percent who have yet to get the jab: "For those people who are unvaccinated, I think omicron is quite likely to find you period. BA.2 is going to be even more likely to find you than BA.1 at some point. So as long as Covid remains prevalent, it will remain a potential threat."

Need a jab or a swab? Several public health and hospital sites offer Covid shots and boosters or PCR tests.

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