More than one-in-ten Covid tests in New York City are coming back positive for the first time in nearly six months – as officials fear new strains of the virus taking hold in America will result in another summer surge.
The Big Apple’s Covid-19-test positivity rate reached 10.3 percent, according to most recently available data from NYC Health. It’s the first time the mark has eclipsed 10 percent since January, when the city was ravaged by the Omicron variant.
While raw figures remain low – the 3,400 cases per day the city is averaging is dwarfed by the tens of thousands reached during the original Omicron surge – some fear case figures are no longer reliable because of the prevalence of at-home testing and asymptomatic cases.
The reason for the jump in case-positivity is believed to be the BA.5 Omicron sub-lineage, which some are describing as the worst version of the variant yet.
Daily case figures are beginning to creep upward across the U.S., with daily case figures jumping 12 percent over the past week to 112,781 per day. Deaths have remained steady at 376 per day, though.
The most recently available data from New York City health officials is from June 27. Over the course of 11 days, the city’s Covid positivity rate rocketed from 7.5 percent on June 16 to 10.3 percent on the 27th.
Rocketing case positivity also correlates with the rise of two mutant virus strains that are starting to become dominant.
The BA.5 variant now makes up 36.6 percent of sequenced cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only trailing BA 2.12.1 (42 percent of sequenced cases) as the nation’s most prevalent strain. BA.4, which shares many of the same traits as BA.5, makes up 15.7 percent of cases.
Every single sequenced cases in the U.S. is a form of the Omicron variant as the highly infectious strain that emerged in late 2021 has snuffed out other versions of the virus.
The once-dominant BA.2 ‘stealth’ variant now makes up less than six percent of Covid cases in the U.S. The original BA.1 Omicron strain is no longer being detected.
The strains, which now make up more than half of the nation’s Covid cases, have alarmed health officials after early data from South Africa showed that natural immunity a person has from a previous infection is not as effective against them as it is other strains.
While their rise has not yet impacted national case figures, some experts are warning that more localized outbreaks are on the way.
The BA.5 (dark green) and BA.4 (light green) now combine to make up more than half of active Covid cases in the U.S.
Unlike previous strains of the virus, that have mainly moved east-to-west in the U.S., BA.4 and BA.5 are more prevalent along the west coast than the east coast
In New York City, Dr. Jay Varma, former public health advisor to Mayor Bill de Blasio, warns that BA.5 could the reason case figures in the nation’s largest city are no longer declining.
‘The decline of reported [COVID-19] cases in NYC has stopped. Reported cases are at a high plateau, which means actual transmission is very high when you account for the >20x under-counting. This is likely the beginning of a BA.5 wave,’ he said in a tweet.
According to CDC data, BA.5 makes up nearly one-in-three cases in the New York and New Jersey region. BA.4 makes up nearly 12 percent of cases while BA 2.12.1 remains dominant.
Unlike usual Covid strains, which take root along the East Coast before spreading west over time, these two strains have taken root on the other side of the country first.
BA.5 makes up 36 percent of sequenced cases along the west coast and 38 percent in the Pacific Northwest. It is most prevalent in in the Dust Bowl, where it makes up 41 percent of sequenced cases and the southwest, where it is at 40 percent.
Luckily for New York City, though, hospitalizations and deaths caused by the virus haven’t jumped alongside case positivity. The city is still averaging nine deaths from the virus every day – lingering in the single digits and low-teens for three months now.
Hospitalizations also dropped below the 100-mark at the start of June and haven’t returned. The city is currently recording 81 Covid-related hospitalizations every day.
The city has also launched its first dedicated ‘Test to Treat’ center, where New Yorkers who test positive for the virus can instantly receive a course of the antiviral pill, Paxlovid, to treat themselves.
New strains that break the general rules of the pandemic – once a person is infected they can’t catch the virus again for some time – change the calculus of the virus response.
Fearing the new strains, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plans to roll out newly formulated Covid-19 vaccines specifically targeting the Omicron variant.
By a 19-2 vote, the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) approved plans to roll out newly formulated vaccines this fall – citing the vaccine resistant traits of the Omicron variant.
All currently available versions of the Covid-19 vaccines are formulated to the original Wuhan strain that emerged two years ago.
While they’re still effective at preventing severe infection or death in a majority of cases, the Omicron variant has mutated in a way to avoid front-end protection from infection.
This change allows for both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to begin distribution of newly formulated shots that should be able to prevent infection from the Omicron variant – along with previous versions of the virus.
The FDA is expected to follow the lead of its advisors and issue emergency use authorization to the new jabs at some point this week.
After the FDA, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will also likely authorize the shots.
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, the FDA’s top regulatory body for vaccines, said Tuesday morning he hoped to make the new shots available as early as October.