‘Stealth’ subvariant driving COVID-19 up in NJ

LILO H. STAINTON, HEALTH CARE WRITER | MAY 10, 2022

NJ Spotlight News

July 29, 2021: This image is an updated representation of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and is representative of all current variants.

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New Jersey’s COVID-19 indicators are trending in the wrong direction — upward — due to a highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus and dwindling public health protections here and across the nation.

Daily diagnoses and likely COVID-19 cases are at a point not seen in New Jersey since late January. And hospitalizations — a key measure of health care capacity — have been rising for six weeks, state records show. Nine out of 10 cases diagnosed in the past month are tied to the omicron subvariant BA.2, also known as the “stealth variant,” which spreads even faster than its highly transmissible parent strain.

New Jersey is clearly not alone. Nationwide, cases are up 50% in the past two weeks, with the greatest increase in the Northeast. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention community COVID-19 map shows “high” and “medium” spread throughout New York state and New England, with the northern two-thirds of New Jersey considered “medium” while southern counties remain in a “low” spread zone.

Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist and public health professor at Montclair State University, said she is not surprised.

“We have been seeing a decline in mask usage indoors since the mandates have been removed both in schools and on transportation at the same time that we’ve seen an increase in the transmission of sub-lineages of omicron, which are more transmissible,” Silvera said. “This creates an environment where a virus that is highly contagious can spread.”

Mask mandate for schools gone

Gov. Phil Murphy lifted the controversial statewide school mask mandate two months ago and, following a federal ruling suspending the requirement for masks for air travel, ended the face-covering rule for New Jersey Transit two weeks later. Cases remained relatively stable — hovering at an average of 1,000 new daily diagnoses for much of March. But cases began to rise again at the start of April, according to an NJ Spotlight News analysis of state data.

New daily COVID-19 diagnoses and likely cases topped 4,300 on Friday, an increase of nearly 140% since the peak single-day total in early April. More than 600 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, nearly two-thirds more than were being treated at this time last month. The reproduction rate, or RT, is now at 1.23 after risking for a week and has been above 1 — meaning that, on average, each infected person is spreading the virus to more than one other person and the presence of the disease is growing — since the start of April, state data shows.

Silvera said the case count data is “artificially low” due to the prevalence of home-testing kits for which few users report case data. The state is now distributing a half-million of these over-the-counter testing kits for use at senior homes, day care centers, churches and other community sites, according to health department officials. Like other home-use tests, there is no government requirement to report the findings, negative or positive, or isolate if it shows you are infected.

“I do think that lifting the mask mandates in schools (and public transit) may have contributed to the increases,” Silvera said. “The reality is that policies, however imperfect, not only limit or promote behaviors, but they also signal risk. By lifting the mandates, it send the signal, incorrectly, that the pandemic is over and we don’t have to worry about COVID-19 anymore.”

High infection risk

Public health professionals and advocates for individuals at high risk for infection share a concern that people are no longer taking proper public health precautions. Since the pandemic’s start in 2020, nearly 2.3 million New Jerseyans have been infected and close to 33,500 have died. Both Murphy and his wife contracted COVID-19 earlier this year, and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Monday she had tested positive for the disease.

When the state suspended the school mask mandate in early March, New Jersey Commissioner of Health Judy Persichilli said people would be more responsible for assessing their own risk for COVID-19 infection.

“We need to stay vigilant and integrate all that we have learned into our everyday practices and processes. We must remain focused on our most vulnerable residents,” Persichilli said, adding that those who are immunocompromised should “be careful. You will be at risk, no doubt about it.”

Representatives from the health department said Monday that officials are reviewing and finalizing the latest predictive modeling data for COVID-19, which is widely expected to dip during the warmer months ahead before rising as the weather cools in the fall. Schools are still encouraged to refer to weekly infection-level reports from the department — the most recent shows a “moderate” level of spread statewide — when planning district-level public health protections, department staff said, and the public should visit the CDC community map.

Home-testing kits

In anticipation of this current surge, the department distributed nearly 500,000 home-testing kits to county-based health agencies and a public health office in Newark. The state encouraged local health officials to distribute these testing kits to food banks, homeless shelters, senior residences, group homes, day care facilities and faith-based organizations, according to communications director Donna Leusner.

“Guidance was provided to prioritize communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” Leusner said. The department is also promoting a federal program for testing in schools, she said, and is working on public health messages for summer camps.

Vaccinations are the most effective weapon in controlling COVID-19, experts agree, and 6.9 million New Jerseyans have now had their initial shots. But the protection wanes, making booster doses essential to reduce the chance of infection and guard against severe sickness and death. Some 3.6 million people have had at least one booster, according to health officials, or nearly 55% of those eligible for those additional doses.

Silvera is among those who would like to see booster coverage increase. She’s also hopeful that warmer weather means people will open their windows, increasing air circulation and reducing infection risk, or move activities outdoors. “That said, we are shifting into prom and graduation party season as well as wedding season, where people gather indoors without masks, and this can lead to a temporary increase in cases,” she said. “And when cases increase, there is an increased risk of hospitalizations.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-05-10 03:46:37 -0700