FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A subvariant of omicron is spreading rapidly in Florida, and health experts say it will likely become the dominant strain of the virus in the state before the summer.
The subvariant, named B.A.2.12.1, is a new mutation of the omicron COVID-19 variant — and even more contagious. Some experts believe it may be the most contagious strain thus far.
The subvariant was first detected in New York last month, and made up 42% of all new cases in the Southeast region of United States for the week ending May 7, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
CDC director Rochelle Walensky said while B.A.2.12.1 is highly contagious — about 27% more than the original omicron — it does not seem to cause a more severe case of COVID. Walensky told reporters: ”We continue to believe that those who are vaccinated, and especially those who are boosted, continue to have strong protection against severe disease, even from BA.2.12.1.”
Hospitalizations remain low in Florida compared to other points in the pandemic, but people are getting sick. South Florida physician practices report an uptick in patients arriving with fever, cough, congestion and fatigue — some of them have symptoms for up to 10 days.
Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease expert with the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine at Florida International University, said the high percentage of Floridians who are vaccinated, boosted or recently had omicron “blunts the impact” of B.A.2.12.1, as do the antiviral pills now being used to prevent hospitalizations.
“Studies in the U.S. and China make it crystal clear, it is just as bad as the original Wuhan virus for anyone unvaccinated and who had not previously had COVID,” Marty said. “It is a really serious version. It just seems less serious because of people’s underlying protection.”
A Florida Department of Health report shows B.A.184.108.40.206 surfaced in the state in April. Helix, a private lab that sequences samples of positive COVID tests, reports the omicron subvariant has gained ground in Florida over the past few weeks.
“There is a COVID wave now spreading in the community, and everyone knows that it is probably driven by B.A.220.127.116.11,” said Dr. David Andrews, a professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Andrews said his positive test samples collected in Miami-Dade County also show the subvariant is about 42% of cases. “It mirrors what the CDC is seeing nationally.”
Andrews said he believes Florida is experiencing a “silent surge.”
“With prior infection and vaccine immunity, people are not sick to where we are seeing some impact on hospital care,” he said. ”We have lots of COVID in the community but any statistics that emerge are going to reflect an underestimate when people are self-testing and not reporting it into a public database.”
According to Time, a pair of preliminary, not-yet-peer-reviewed studies — one from China and one from South Africa — suggest this omicron subvariant may be better than earlier strains at evading the immunity offered by vaccines and prior infections.
That means even people who caught the original omicron strain could be at risk of reinfection. However, researchers believe those who had omicron recently and are vaccinated have strong protection.
Meanwhile, two other omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, have gained increasing attention in South Africa as weekly coronavirus cases tripled in the last two weeks.
Marty said while those two subvariants haven’t made it to Florida yet, she anticipates they will arrive in the next few weeks. “Then it’s a matter of how fast and how well they compete with B.A.18.104.22.168.”
With highly contagious strains of COVID circulating, Marty said Floridians need to wear good quality masks in public indoor settings that are poorly ventilated.
“I don’t understand why people want to do away with public health measures and pretend COVID is not here when it still is here,” she said. “The reality is there are potential long-term consequences. People are getting long COVID even when they had mild symptoms.”