New Omicron Wave Threatens These U.S. Cities as Officials Relax COVID Rules

A new Omicron sub-variant, BA.2, informally dubbed "Stealth Omicron," is potentially threatening certain major cities in the U.S., right as COVID-19 precautions and protocols have begun to ease up.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show a steady decrease in overall cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, which has caused states and major cities to ease up on mask and vaccination protocols.

However, while cases and hospitalizations appear to be decreasing, data from the CDC indicates a prevalence of the virus in wastewater in some areas, indicating that COVID could still be spreading significantly in some cities.

Orlando, Chicago, Seattle, and Milwaukee are some of the most prominent cities showing a high spread of COVID-19, according to a Newsweek review of CDC data tracking COVID-19 in wastewater in the U.S.

Nearly 700 watersheds in the U.S. are monitored by the CDC, and several of the watersheds examined in Orange County in Florida, Cook County in Illinois, King County in Washington, and Milwaukee County in Wisconsin—where the major cities are located—showed a 1,000 percent increase in SARS-CoV-2 levels detected between February 24 and March 10, the most recent data available.

Wastewater surveillance for COVID-19 was first introduced in September 2020 and scientists found that, regardless of the presence or absence of symptoms in a population, the virus is easily detectable through wastewater, and can serve as an early warning that COVID-19 is spreading in a community.

Twenty-four percent of the wastewater sites in the U.S. showed a change of at least 100, meaning that while COVID in those areas may not be spiking, the virus continues to spread at a steady rate.

This data causes concern that the loosening restrictions in major cities are premature due to the virus still spreading at high levels.

Orlando, and the state of Florida as a whole, has been outwardly against mask mandates since last year, and the Florida Department of Health recently advised that parents avoid giving their children COVID-19 vaccines if they are healthy.

"We're kind of scraping at the bottom of the barrel, particularly with healthy kids, in terms of actually being able to quantify with any accuracy and any confidence the even potential of benefit," said Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo in a statement last week.

In Seattle, several school districts recently eased up on COVID protocol as parents have urged that it's time to return to pre-pandemic "normal". Chicago also removed mask mandates in a citywide statement on February 28th, according to the Chicago Public Health Department.

And the Milwaukee Health Department also announced the easing up of mask ordinances that began on March 1, citing an overall decrease of cases.

"The continued decrease in COVID-19 cases in our community is promising," said Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson in a press release. "The CDC guidance says that those who are fully vaccinated can feel safe foregoing their mask in public spaces."

But while the overall trend in cases across the country is on a decline, many experts advise those still in red zones to take precautions.

Rebecca Weintraub, assistant professor of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, told ABC News, "Now is a key moment to communicate why we need to accelerate the uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine, remind communities why boosters are needed, secure an ongoing supply of tests and N95 [masks] to communities -- especially the red zones."

And with the recent spread of the new Omicron variant, precautions are especially necessary.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a White House press briefing on Monday that the BA.2 varient appears to be more transmissible. "We've been watching it closely, of course. We currently have about 35,000 cases in this country. We expect some fluctuation, especially at this relatively low level, and certainly that to increase."

Newsweek reached out to several of the city health departments listed for comment but did not hear back in time for publication.

New Yorkers Get Tested For Covid As
Wastewater data shows some major U.S. cities still have a higher COVID-19 spread as states have begun easing up on protocols. Above, a COVID-19 testing location sits inactive with no waiting line in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn on January 10, 2022 in New York City. Scott Heins/Getty Images