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Will ‘stealth’ omicron cause another COVID-19 surge in Utah?

Only 7 cases of subvariant identified in the state — so far

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A woman hands her saliva sample to a worker at a COVID-19 testing site in Bountiful.

A woman hands her saliva sample to a worker at a COVID-19 testing site in Bountiful on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. State officials says there are a few case of the “stealth” omicron subvariant in Utah.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“Stealth” omicron first surfaced in Utah nearly a month ago, but so far, only seven cases of the even more contagious COVID-19 subvariant that’s spreading rapidly through other parts of the world have been identified in the state.

It may just be a matter of time before more cases of the harder to distinguish omicron mutation known by scientists as BA.2 start showing up in the 1,500 COVID-19 test samples subjected to genome sequencing every other day by the Utah Department of Health’s laboratory.

“That is definitely something we’re looking for,” Kelly Oakeson, the state health department’s chief scientist for next generation sequencing and bioinformatics, said Thursday. “We haven’t sequenced huge numbers of them yet in Utah. We do expect to see more of them.”

Especially because it’s expected to be responsible for all cases in Denmark by mid-February, according to Danish researchers, while gaining ground in the United Kingdom as well as other European and some Asian countries, including India and the Philippines.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimatesthe omicron subvariant accounted for 3.6% of the nation’s COVID-19 cases for the week ending Feb. 5, up from 1.2% the week before. For the region of the country that includes Utah, 1.5% of cases were believed to be caused by the new subvariant last week.

The state health department’s coronavirus.utah.gov website does not include a count for BA.2 cases.

Oakeson said the CDC data suggests the subvariant isn’t moving too quickly, at least not yet.

“Nationally, there are a few more BA.2s showing up in the data, but it doesn’t seem to be taking off and replacing the original omicron variant just yet,” he said. “This is definitely moving at a slower pace than omicron did against delta,” the COVID-19 variant that made Utah and the Intermountain West the nation’s virus hot spot last fall.

Within a week or so after the original omicron variant turned up in Utah after slamming the eastern part of the country, it was taking over from the delta variant, Oakeson said, thanks to the incredibly contagious variant’s “super-duper fast” spread that sent case counts soaring to nearly three times last winter’s record totals.

But the new mutation is apparently even more transmissible, he said, so it’s not clear what it may do.

“Omicron has kind of swept through the population. That’s going to give you some level of protection against BA.2, right, because your immune system has seen the original omicron,” Oakeson said, and the combination of COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots are effective in preventing severe disease, even from the subvariant.

Will that be enough to stop the new omicron subvariant from causing yet another coronavirus surge in Utah? Maybe, he suggested.

“You’re just not going to see it transmit as fast because the number of people who would be susceptible to BA.2 is smaller,” Oakeson said, although there will continue to be Utahns who become reinfected after having the virus or who experience a breakthrough case despite being fully vaccinated and boosted.

“Nothing is 100% when it comes to your immune system,” he said, but there’s hope cases won’t skyrocket again.

“That’s the hypothesis at the moment, right? But it’s still early on. We’ll see if that hypothesis holds true or not,” Oakeson said, stopping short of predicting how soon Utahns could feel comfortable that another dramatic rise in cases isn’t coming.

“That’s a hard thing to answer because this virus kept throwing curve balls at us,” he said. “I would say multiple weeks but I don’t feel comfortable pinning down an exact number. Who knows? Nobody really expected anything to be more transmissible than omicron, yet here we are with BA.2.”

Original omicron appears to have peaked in Utah, although case counts in the state are no longer seen as accurate after most Utahns with symptoms were told last month to skip overwhelmed testing sites and instead just stay home. Rapid testing at state sites has been suspended due to issues with false negatives and may not be resumed.

Hospitalizations and deaths are still high in Utah, with a record 32 deaths reported in a single day earlier this week. On Thursday, the state health department reported 650 people are hospitalized with the virus in Utah and another 13 have died from COVID-19, bringing the death toll to 4,250.

Oakeson said he doesn’t know at this point if any of the seven BA.2 cases in Utah resulted in hospitalizations or death. The omicron subvariant isn’t believed to cause more severe disease than its largely milder predecessor, according to the World Health Organization.

But Oakeson made it clear he doesn’t consider the original omicron milder.

“I don’t like calling it more mild. I think it was just more severe in a different manner,” the scientist said. “While it didn’t cause each individual to get as sick, the huge number of cases we had still had a huge impacton public health.”