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COVID: Omicron Variant BA.2 Found In Wastewater Samples In Santa Clara County

SAN JOSE (KPIX) -- The new Omicron variant BA.2 has been confirmed in wastewater testing in Santa Clara County. The highest concentrations of the variant were in Palo Alto and Gilroy.

"We see that BA.2 is likely replacing BA.1, which was the original Omicron virus that was infecting the population here," said Alexandria Böhm, a Stanford Professor of Environmental Engineering involved in wastewater surveillance.

The news comes at a time when two-year old protections such as mask mandates are being lifted and people are gathering again, often indoors.

That's a concern for health officials because BA.2 is even more transmissible than previous variants.

"It is at least 30 percent more transmissible, maybe even more, as high as 50 percent. It means that whatever strategies you've used to escape being infected may not work with BA.2," said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong of UCSF.

Dr. Chin-Hong says the data shows that, so far, BA.2 is not causing people to get sicker and need hospitalizations.

And he says vaccines are proving to be effective against it.

"Regardless of when you got your vaccines, if you have gotten two or more depending on your age group, you would be protected against serious disease, hospitalization and death," Chin-Hong said.

Presence of the variant in wastewater surveillance is usually two weeks ahead of when clinical cases would show up, so the full impact the variant is yet to come as the pandemic enters its third year.

"It's definitely not over. We will continue to see ups and downs until a time when it's just in the background. But we're not there yet," Chin-Hong said.

Epidemiologist Dr. George Rutherford from UCSF says with the high vaccination rates. he's hoping the Bay Area will actually continue to see numbers decline even though the Omicron subvariant is already circulating in our community.

BA.2 is the subvariant that is responsible for the latest surge in countries like the UK. The concern is the UK has always signaled what's to come for the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 50% of Americans have been spared from the coronavirus which means Covid has the ability to still do a lot of harm.

"We got a lot of kindling for a fire. That's why we have to have high vaccination rates, including boosters and continued vigilance to spot trends before they develop," Dr. Rutherford said.

He hopes the Bay Area can avoid a huge surge even though the time for families to gather and travel for spring break is just around the corner. This comes as the state also getting rid of mask mandates and other restrictions.

"While we can get rid off mask mandates today, it doesn't mean that we can keep it that way forever," adds Dr. Rutherford.

The White House is urging congress to approve the next round of funding for the country's covid response. Although some local counties such as Contra Costa say as of now they are well equipped to handle the next surge, Dr. Rutherford says a funding package is critical in the future fight against COVID.

"We're going to need that money, especially if we start trending towards more expensive solutions like testing and treating with these new anti-viral drugs like Paxlovid. Those are going to be complex decisions and those are going to cost a lot of money," he said.

Andrea Nakano contributed to this report.

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