2022 | Coronavirus

County officials not concerned yet about severity of new COVID-19 omicron variant

State has reported 193 omicron BA.2 cases so far

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

This story was updated at 4:50 p.m. March 30, 2022, to include more details. 

A new strain of the COVID-19 omicron variant is in Maryland and likely Montgomery County — but county health officials said they’re less concerned about it so far than about previous variants.

The new omicron variant, also known as BA.2, is currently 48.3% of coronavirus cases in Region 3 of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, according to the latest data. That region includes Delaware, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. 

Andy Owen, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health, wrote in an email that as of March 30, there have been 193 BA.2 cases reported in Maryland. The department “does not currently maintain county-level sequencing data,” Owen added.

James Bridgers, the county’s acting health officer, told reporters at a weekly briefing on Wednesday that the state Department of Health dashboard should be updated by week’s end to reflect variant data in Maryland and in different counties.

He said it’s been hard to gauge how many cases of the new variant are in the county or state, as the number of cases has risen in the region.

“We don’t get the specific data regarding what’s sequenced in the county based on the labs. The labs are sending sequence through the state’s lab and Johns Hopkins,” Bridgers said. “And so we don’t have that data available.”

Sean O’Donnell, the county’s public health emergency preparedness manager, said during a news briefing Monday that people who have had the original strain of the omicron variant are less likely to see a breakthrough case of the second omicron variant.

Bridgers and Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard — who recently tested positive for the coronavirus but said Wednesday he was feeling fine — said the newest strain of omicron appears to be less severe than the first strain. 

Stoddard said the preliminary data and trends indicate that the new strain of omicron doesn’t seem to have the “transmission strength” to overtake the first strain of omicron, like the first omicron strain did with delta. 

“It also infers that because not seeing hospitalization soar and not seeing the faster takeover, that it’s not likely substantially more severe than omicron because we’re not seeing it in hospitalization rates,” Stoddard said. “Even in places where BA.2 has taken over more heavily, like in the Northeast, you’re not seeing hospitalization rates soaring there either.”

Stoddard and Bridgers said, however, that they are still monitoring the variants to check long-term health-related effects. Stoddard said he’s seen “long COVID” affect people’s diabetes, neurological conditions and change people’s circulatory systems.

There’s still a lot to study, but it will be important to monitor, health officials said.

“I don’t think BA.2 necessarily, acutely, is going to be an issue,” Stoddard. “More people being infected by COVID in terms of the implications for our long-term health and health disparities is going to be something we’re going to be dealing with, or are grappling with, for months and years to come.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com