New COVID-19 subvariant emerges in Georgia, prompts surge in New York

The latest omicron subvariant is beginning to catch steam in the southeast

As Georgia begins to scale back how frequently it publicly reports COVID-19 infections, a new subvariant that’s prompting an outbreak in New York is beginning to surface throughout the southeast.

While cases in Georgia have mostly held steady over the past few weeks, New York has often acted as a bellwether for COVID activity in the U.S., so some health experts are concerned Georgia could be missing the early signs of an upcoming surge.

The omicron variant BA.2 remains the primary strain spreading throughout Georgia and the U.S. But in the southeast and elsewhere, the latest omicron subvariant, BA.2.12.1, is beginning to gain steam. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, omicron subvariants are spurring an outbreak in most New York counties, with more than two dozen counties being listed at high risk.

Outside of three South Georgia counties — Appling, Atkinson and Bacon — that are listed as medium risk, the state remains in a period of low COVID spread. However, it could take longer for the public to learn of a new Georgia outbreak if one occurs due to the state moving away from daily public reports of COVID-19 cases.

Wednesday marked the first day a new weekly report was released by the Georgia Department of Public Health. Similar to the prior daily updates, the DPH’s COVID tracker provides the number of new infections each day while also providing a seven-day moving average.

The latest data doesn’t show a noticeable uptick in Georgia — definitely nothing to rival New York’s current surge. The New York Times reported that as of Wednesday the two-week average has increased 24% for cases and 37% for deaths. However, it does show that Georgia cases have begun increasing throughout April. The month’s seven-day rolling average started at about 281 cases per day on April 1, and increased to 452 cases per day by April 14.

That’s still among the lowest infection rates during the pandemic, and the last time Georgia’s average infection rate was consistently below 450 daily cases was last June before the delta variant emerged. The highest average infection rate, which was at the beginning of this year during the omicron outbreak, was more than 23,000 daily cases.

On April 15, the DPH announced it would stop daily reports, citing the rise of at-home COVID tests, which do not get reported to the state and make tracking overall infection trends more difficult. The change was criticized by some public health experts, who worried that less frequent updates could lead to state officials missing the early signs of a surge.

“My own feeling is that this is the very worst time to stop counting,” said Dr. Richard Rothenberg, Regents’ Professor in the School of Public Health at Georgia State University. “We are in a grace period at the moment, with a general decline around the country but a few places are seeing an increase from BA.2, and there’s a sense that that may signal another surge.”

Omicron’s new subvariant BA.2.12.1 only comprises a small portion of COVID infections in the southeast. It comprised about 14% of all COVID cases in eight southeastern states, including Georgia, by April 9, which is the most recent data available. In contract, it’s 31% of all cases in the region containing New York.

Throughout the pandemic, New York City has often been ground zero during each wave of heightened infections, which then spread to other major U.S. cities, such as Atlanta. However, the new subvariant seems to be spreading outside America’s most populated city, instead showing up in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse.

“It’s really difficult to attribute where this is coming from,” Mary McFadden, the director of public health in Broome County, N.Y., told The New York Times. “It’s literally from everywhere. It’s very difficult to pinpoint with home tests.”

It’s unclear how well at-home tests perform against these new subvariants. Dr. Wilbur Lam, a co-director of a new testing research facility in Brookhaven, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it’s important to develop better testing measures to determine the threat presented by BA.2.12.1.

“We’re constantly trying to figure out whether those should be of concern,” he said. “We’re trying to be a bit more proactive.”