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Health Officials Are Watching Out for Evidence of New COVID Variant in New York State

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The New York State Capitol Building
Credit: New York NOW

Health Officials Are Watching Out for Evidence of New COVID Variant in New York State

Gov. Kathy Hochul said New York state health officials are on the lookout for a new COVID-19 variant circulating in some parts of the country that may be able to evade prior immunity.

For the past couple of years, the dominant strain of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been omicron, with numerous subvariants.

The new variant, known as BA.2.86, is genetically different than omicron. It has been found in Israel, Denmark and South Africa, as well as in the states of Michigan and Virginia. The World Health Organization has classified it as a “variant under monitoring” but has not yet upgraded the status to a “variant of concern.”

Dr. James McDonald, the state’s health commissioner, said the mutations are significant and could mean that the new variant might be more severe than previous recent strains or could evade prior immunity. But he said scientists don’t know yet.

“This one’s different,” McDonald said. “And that's why we're paying attention to it. Because it's really different than the omicron subvariant.”

McDonald said while the new variant hasn’t been seen in New York yet, it’s “popping up in different parts of the planet,” and health officials here are paying attention to i

“And the big question is,” he said, “is it going to be a problem or not, and that's we're going to try to find out.”

The state health department’s Wadsworth laboratories are intensifying their analysis of wastewater across the state to try to detect any sign of the new variant. They are also collecting more samples of positive COVID tests conducted in health care settings to determine if BA.2.86 shows up.

The news comes as COVID-related hospitalizations are increasing, although they are at a much lower rate than the height of the omicron wave between November 2021 and January 2022.

It also comes as schools are reopening for the fall. McDonald and Hochul recommend that schools review current federal Centers for Disease Control guidance and promote vaccinations and testing. They said schools should also make sure classrooms are properly ventilated, and that teachers reinforce proper handwashing and other healthy practices.

But McDonald said there’s no cause for undue worry right now. And he’s not changing his recommendations on what to do if you feel sick.

“If you do have signs and symptoms of COVID, get a test. If you're positive, talk to your health care provider about whether treatment is right for you,” he said. “It was for me. It helped me quite a bit when I had COVID.”

McDonald said he felt better after a few days of rest, and he said most people who come down with COVID in the next few weeks and months should have a similar outcome.

The newest variant raises the possibility that a new vaccine due out later in September, aimed at providing immunity from the most recent omicron subvariants, might not be as effective against the new strain.

But health officials are still recommending that people should get the new vaccine when it becomes available.