COVID CORNER | BA.5 subvariant starts taking hold in NYC, hospitalizations on the rise

COVID, home kits , Fordham Road
A mother receives an at-home COVID-19 test at a free distribution event in December.
Photo Adrian Childress

The BA. 5 subvariant of COVID-19, which health experts have classified as “the worst version of the virus” while accounting for 54% of new cases in the United States, is a stark reminder that the pandemic is not, and has never been, over.

In New York City, where major virus hubs in Astoria and Midtown have driven the city’s positivity rate to around 15% in recent weeks — a rate not seen since the winter — all five of its counties, including Westchester County, were added back to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) high-risk category for COVID spread last week.

Over the past week, the Bronx averaged 604 new confirmed cases per day — 42.6 cases for every 100,000 residents — which is far cry from the 540-plus benchmark in new cases during omicron’s spread across the city this winter. While 88% of the Bronx has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, 76% have received at least two doses or a single Johnson & Johnson dose and just 25% have been boosted.

As for weekly metrics, the Bronx reported 4,229 new cases, totaling 297.9 cases for every 100,000 residents, according to state health data.

While health experts cite that the subvariant is highly infectious, it hasn’t been concretely determined by health officials if the BA. 5 subvariant is wholly resistant to vaccinations and booster shots, as the omicron offshoot carries key mutations that help it escape antibodies generated by vaccines and prior infection.

Additionally, it’s hard to determine if the Bronx’s caseload is representative of the spread across the borough as the true number of infections is possibly undercounted due to the prevalence of at-home self-testing which is not reflected in the city or state metrics.

Hospitalizations are also on the rise, though. The Bronx averaged just a shade under 200 hospitalizations on July 7, and stagnating booster vaccination rates continuing coupled with rising hospitalization rates are “a sign of trouble,” according to local health officials.

The city is also looking for an increased public health response from Mayor Eric Adams, who relaxed COVID-19 restrictions in March, after he promised “new weapons” in the fight against the recent wave of infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says COVID is a concern in New York City, and in recent days, public health officials have urged New Yorkers to don masks in indoor settings and outdoor crowds as a virus-curbing measure.

Earlier this month, the city health department removed the color-coded alert system that spelled out a range of actions that the municipal government should consider taking when infection rates hit specific thresholds, like reinstating mask and vaccine mandates for certain public indoor spaces and activities.

There has been no replacement for the color-coded system entering Tuesday.

The state reported 43,641 new COVID-19 cases in the week ending Sunday, up from 41,642 new cases the prior week, and the state ranked 20th in the nation where coronavirus was spreading the fastest on a per-person basis, a USA Today Network analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows.

Gov. Kathy Hochul recently announced the launch of a free hotline for those who test positive for the virus, but are without a health care provider.

The Hotline, 888-TREAT-NY, was launched by the state Department of Health after reaching an agreement to utilize the Virtual ExpressCare platform operated by NYC Health + Hospitals.

“We’ve made real progress in our fight against COVID-19, but as new variants continue to spread it’s important to continue to adapt and expand our efforts to protect New Yorkers,” Hochul said. “Our new COVID-19 treatment hotline will provide New Yorkers with better access to early treatments that help prevent severe illness.”

Reach Robbie Sequeira at rsequeira@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes

More from Around NYC