In the past few days, Massachusetts’ COVID-19 cases and percent positivity rate have declined somewhat, giving local residents and medical experts alike hope that the current surge may be coming to an end soon.
But top Boston doctors warn that two new Omicron subvariants causing problems in South Africa – BA.4 and BA.5 – could lead to another upsurge in the near future, despite a slight decline.
Cases had been falling in South Africa for over a month before the BA.4 and now BA.5 strains started increasing cases. The BA.4 subvariant now accounts for about half of the new infections there.
Experts say BA.4 appears to be more portable than both the original Omicron variant and an Omicron relative known as BA.2. Scientists are still studying the new mutants, but they don’t appear to cause more severe disease than other versions of the virus, the WHO said in a recent report.
So far, BA.4 and BA.5 have not made much headway in the US, where BA.2 and its progeny BA.2.12.1 still account for almost all cases. But BA.4 and BA.5 have been detected in wastewater in parts of the country.
Here’s what Boston doctors told us about the current wave and what to expect in the coming months during NBC10 Boston’s weekly “COVID Q&A” series.
Massachusetts COVID numbers trending down
Massachusetts health officials on Wednesday reported 3,084 new COVID-19 cases and 12 other deaths. The state’s seven-day average positivity rate fell to 8.33% on Wednesday, compared to 8.58% on Tuesday.
dr Tufts Medical Center’s Shira Doron said she looks at the state’s data every day, but was hesitant to call anything a trend for a while because the number of cases reported to the state is a very small proportion of cases since there are so many now Tests are done at home.
She also said some testing centers take a few days to get the results out, “so there’s always a little tail at the end that looks like it’s going to fall off.”
With that in mind, Doron said she is now seeing a drop going back to May 15, along with a corresponding drop in COVID data on Boston sewage.
“So it’s a gradual reduction day by day that seems real, although I always reserve judgment for later,” she said.
“It looked like we were on a plateau and now things are creeping down a bit – both the average weekly numbers and the effluent,” added Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “We’ve also had kind of a plateau in hospitalizations locally in Brigham, at least for the past week or so.”
Many businesses have been understaffed lately as workers called in sick due to COVID-19.
Will the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants hold many case numbers over the summer?
“The descents have been short-lived lately when we’ve seen these downturns,” Doron said when asked what to expect next. “What we’ve seen with omicron is that it keeps breaking down into sub-variants and sub-variants and sub-variants. And there could always be something around the corner, something we know or don’t know and we know there’s BA.4 and BA. 5 around the corner, which is already causing a bit of chaos in South Africa. It’s not like BA.1 but that might be around the corner and so the descent might reverse and go back up. But for now we seem to be on the decline.”
“As with everything else, we’ll be sure to let you know as soon as it’s ready,” Kuritzkes noted. “I don’t think we can predict right now if we’re really at the end of the omicron rise or if we’re just transitioning into a different phase of the omicron rise.”
Why do some people get infected more than once and others not at all, while new COVID-19 infections in New England are being fueled by a subvariant? We spoke to experts.
Could Memorial Day weekend fuel the spread of COVID?
Boston health officials are advising caution during Memorial Day weekend as COVID-19 rates remain high. Community positivity in Boston sits at 11%, local testing data shows. But will the bank holiday long weekend actually lead to a spike in cases like some other bank holidays have done in the past?
“It’s hard to say,” Kuritzkes said. “On the one hand, there will probably be a lot of people gathering, and we continue to have a lot of closing events. But many of these activities take place outdoors. It’s different than Thanksgiving or the winter holidays. But it’s just really hard to do white. That’s offset by the fact that very few people now mask, especially when travelling. That could lead to some cases after the upcoming bank holiday weekend.
“I think it’s going to be very interesting,” added Doron. “If we see a descent and no new variants or sub-variants by Memorial Day weekend, it’ll be a good lesson to see what impact a holiday does or doesn’t have if you’re on a clear path or direction.”
“So much of what we’ve seen around the holidays has been marred by the simultaneous arrival of new variants that it’s hard to tease out,” she said. “Last year there was a lot of emphasis on the Fourth of July, but then Delta came to town. Yes, there was a July 4th related outbreak in Provincetown, but we would have seen a delta wave anyway, with slightly different timing. We found out about omicron on Thanksgiving Day, and this wave took a definite turn during Thanksgiving and Christmas. But she had this form curve in countries that didn’t celebrate Christmas.”
“It gets really interesting when we look back in time, how many variants came into play, how important the mitigation strategies were, and how important holidays and events were in the big scheme of the big picture.”