A sign outside the Richmond registrar’s office, an early voting site, encourages people to wear masks and practice social distancing. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
BA.2, a more infectious subvariant of omicron, now makes up the majority of new COVID-19 cases in Virginia — just under 70 percent, according to recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But there are no plans to reinstate indoor mask mandates or earlier pandemic precautions amid a slight uptick in cases, said Dr. Colin Greene, who was recently moved from acting to permanent commissioner of the Virginia Department of Health under Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
“Obviously, we can’t predict the future,” he said this week at a meeting for the department’s Advisory Council on Health Disparity and Health Equity. “But as of right now, we’re moving forward to a plan where we’ll deal with COVID in a way that’s consistent with more traditional disease prevention measures.”
The announcement comes as little surprise given the Youngkin administration’s vocal opposition to mandated masks and vaccinations. But it speaks to underlying uncertainty about the subvariant, estimated to be roughly 30 percent more transmissible than the original — and already highly infectious — omicron strain.
BA.2 has been linked to recent surges in China and some European countries, including Germany and the United Kingdom. And Philadelphia attracted nationwide attention earlier this week when it brought back its indoor mask mandate in response to a modest rise in cases.
Virginia has also seen a slight rise since late March, which marked some of the state’s lowest case rates since the start of the pandemic. As of Wednesday, the state was recording an average of just over 1,000 new cases a day — up from an average 667 daily new cases just two weeks earlier. Virginia’s percent positivity rate, which measures the share of COVID-19 tests that come back positive, also rose from less than 4 percent to nearly 7 percent over the last two weeks.
Currently, though, COVID hospitalizations are still declining and deaths have remained relatively steady since the omicron surge. The University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute noted that BA.2 could end the continued decline in cases, but there’s no sign of any rapid new growth. Modeling suggests that the subvariant could cause a “minor surge,” according to the institute’s most recent report, but it’s far from guaranteed.
It’s not totally clear why BA.2 caused surges in some countries but little impact in others. When it comes to Virginia, Greene, like UVA researchers, pointed to high vaccination rates as a reason for optimism.
While uptake still varies greatly across the state, just under 83 percent of adults are fully vaccinated, according to VDH data. Virginians who contracted the virus during the latest surge likely still have immunity, which experts hope will allow the state to avoid even a moderate new wave.
The subvariant also hit Europe weeks earlier, just as some countries were lifting their COVID-19 restrictions. Warmer weather and a return to outdoor gatherings will likely be another protective factor, though researchers cautioned that only around one in three Virginians have received a booster dose, which can increase immunity against new variants.
Amid improved metrics, though, Greene said the department is shifting away from many of its pandemic-era practices. Notably, health departments are no longer investigating and tracing every new case.
The practice ended at the height of the omicron surge, when thousands of daily infections made it practicably impossible. But as cases have declined along with severe outcomes, most local agencies have continued to limit their tracing efforts to outbreaks in schools and other congregate settings.
“We’re getting to the point where we’re spending a lot of resources trying to prevent colds,” Greene said after the meeting. He said the state — currently in the process of drafting an endemic COVID plan — should start treating the virus more like the flu and other common communicable diseases.
Some health experts say cases are still a concern given the risk of long COVID and multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, which can emerge through infections alone. State data also shows that over the course of the pandemic, Black and Latino Virginians have been disproportionately impacted by COVID hospitalizations and deaths, which have risen during every new surge.
Greene told the advisory council that the state could still reimplement prevention strategies if cases did start rising dramatically. And unlike the Virginia Department of Education, where Youngkin appointees ended virtually every equity initiative, he said there were no plans to end or shift any of those efforts at VDH.
The agency currently has an Office of Health Equity and has identified several areas for improvement, including disparate rates of maternal death among Black and White mothers.
“Our plan is still in place right now,” Greene said. “I don’t want to speak for the governor, but I know these health disparities matter to him.”
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