BA.2 Variant Spikes Leave Experts Nervous Over Mandate Rollbacks In U.S.

The Omicron subvariant of COVID-19 known as BA.2 appears to be spreading faster in the U.S. in recent weeks, leaving experts nervous as states have rolled back COVID mandates.

The BA.2 variant, also known as the "Stealth" Omicron variant, currently accounts for nearly 35 percent of all new sequenced cases in the U.S., according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Dr. Scott Roberts, a Yale School of Medicine infectious diseases doctor and assistant professor, told Newsweek, "I think what most people are expecting is a rise in cases, the loosening of public health protections as well as this new BA.2 subvariant, which we're seeing is more transmissible, we're a little nervous."

Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, told ABC's This Week on Sunday that the new subvariant is "about 50 percent to 60 percent or so more transmissible, which means ultimately it might take over as a dominant variant."

Indeed, while the variant makes up for 35 percent of sequenced cases this week, it took a sharp increase from last week, when BA.2 only accounted for 23.1 percent of the sequenced cases in the U.S.

The easing of public restrictions and mandates makes transmission easier, experts say, as states over the last month have dropped mask mandates and vaccination requirements in public spaces.

Calls to drop the requirements for COVID testing on airlines have been issued since February, and mask requirements have been lifted in schools across the U.S. New York, California, and Oregon announced last month that they would end indoor mask policies in most public schools. Several states around the U.S. follow suit and while cases may increase with the more contagious subvariant, it is unlikely that restrictions will be put back in place now.

"I think a lot of the public and a lot of leadership have essentially taken back restrictions without the intent to put them back on, and I do sense that many people are over the pandemic, and I want to caution that we are still in the pandemic," Roberts said.

But while experts warn that caution should still be taken, they are optimistic.

William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee told Newsweek that the BA.2 variant "is more contagious than Omicron. However, the second characteristic is very important: namely, our current vaccines continue to provide good protection against severe disease."

"While we do anticipate BA.2 will indeed be continuing to spread, it's likely to dominantly create many cases but they will be of the mild variety. It will be like a common cold or a bad cold. It's less likely to produce a major surge in hospitalizations because the vaccines continue to provide good coverage," he added.

Schaffner stated that vaccinated Americans are at a lower risk of hospitalization due to COVID, and the biggest concern is for people who are not vaccinated or are only partially vaccinated, meaning they have yet to receive their booster shot.

"There could be some increases in hospitalizations, but I don't think it will be comparable to the 'surges' we've had before," he said.

Schaffner also added that it is extremely unlikely that states would attempt to mandate masks again in order to evade a spike in BA.2. "Unless we have a completely new variant that evades the protection of vaccines, I don't think states will bring masks back," he said. "It would be like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube."

The professor said that if anything, the BA.2 spike is evident that the pandemic is not truly over.

"I think there is a certain misperception there that as we talk about the pandemic being 'over,' they think that's the end of COVID. Of course, it's not, we're moving into an endemic phase. I liken it to a "truce" with the virus," Schaffner told Newsweek. "We've lived with influenza, we're going to have to keep living with COVID."

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Experts are nervous about a potential spike in COVID-19 cases with the new Omicron subvariant, BA.2 as states remove mask mandates and ease protocols. In this photo, people walk by Pfizer headquarters on March 1, 2022. In New York. Eduardo MunozAlvarez/VIEWpress