The COVID-19 ‘stealth’ variant is now the dominant strain in the United States, making up 55 percent of cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. Despite the highly infectious nature of the variant, which is a lineage of the Omicron variant, case and death total in America remain near pandemic lows.
The agency revealed data Tuesday as part of its weekly Nowcast surveillance. The Omicron variant as a whole still remains the dominant strain in the U.S., but BA.2 has overtaken the BA.1 lineage that caused massive worldwide virus surges around the new year.
The ‘stealth’ variant, which earned the moniker from its ability to avoid detection through some sequencing methods, is believed to be the most infectious version of Covid yet – but is just as mild as BA.1.
BA.2’s share of Covid infections in America is growing with the variant only accounting for 35 percent of cases in last week’s report. In the prior weeks it made up less than one out of every four cases.
The variant’s rise has not caused the jump in Covid cases in the U.S. that occurred in many European countries, though.
Case numbers in the U.S. have stabilized after sharply increasing, then decreasing, to start 2022. America is currently averaging 31,222 cases per day, staying flat from last week. Current case figures are at one of the lowest points since the pandemic first began in March 2020.
Deaths are plummeting, down nearly 30 percent over the past week to 776 per day. Tuesday marks the first day daily deaths have dropped below 800 per day since the Omicron variant landed in America in early-December. This is also the lowest daily death figures have reached since August.
Amid falling figures, the U.S. is making two major moves this weekend that further signal the country’s attempt to move of from the pandemic.
On Tuesday, the final military deployments to hospitals around the country to assist with surges of Covid patients will come to an end, as declining cases, a high vaccination rate and the more mild nature of the Omicron variant leaves little risk of health care facilities suffering another overwhelming sure of patients.
In total, around 5,000 troops have been deployed to 49 states since the pandemic started, and barring a major shift, there will not be any more sent out.
Reimbursement for uninsured COVID-19 patients that receive hospital treatment is set to come to an end as well, as the White House has failed to secure funding for the initiative as many Republican federal lawmakers push past the pandemic.
While some are worried about the latter, and that it could hurt America’s ability to test for and treat Covid patients, both moves signal a large push at the federal level to return to ‘normal’.
Throughout the pandemic, around 5,000 troops have been deployed to assist struggling hospitals. That initiative will end on Tuesday – barring another surge of the virus – when the last of the deployments come to an end. Pictured: A soldier assists a Covid testing site in Brooklyn, New York
The last remaining federal regulations related to the pandemic could be on the way out as well. Despite falling case figures, the CDC still requires Americans to wear masks of public forms of transportation like planes and trains.
Dr Scott Gottlieb, former director of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and current board member at Pfizer, told CNBC’s Squawk Box on Monday that he expects the agency to let the mask mandates lapse next month.
‘If we’re not in thick of another wave of BA.2 infection in the middle of April, I think they will go ahead and lift that,’ Gottlieb said.
‘I think the uncertainty around that is we are starting to see infections start to creep up. If it kind of levels off in the next couple of weeks, which it may, I think the administration will go ahead and lift that.’
Fears of the new variant, which caused case increases across Europe earlier this month before quickly receding again, has spurred health officials to approve another jab of the COVID-19 vaccine.
On Tuesday, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that the fourth dose of its COVID-19 vaccine had been authorized by regulators for all Americans 50 and older, and for the immunocompromised aged 12 and up. Moderna’s shot also received authorization.
Not all experts believe the shot is necessary.
Dr Anna Durbin is an international public health expert at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and has been a critic of Pfizer, Moderna and the White House’s insistence to roll out COVID-19 booster shots before they are needed. Last week, she told ABC that she does not believe many Americans will benefit from additional shots.
‘There are very few, if any, people who, in my opinion require a fourth dose,’ she said.
In August, when the White House was laying out plans to roll out the first batch COVID-19 booster shots, Durbin was also a critic, telling DailyMail.com that there was little science backing up the decision.
Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said last week that he expects the U.S. to suffer a BA.2-fueled surge sometime soon, though, and that his company’s vaccine will be needed to control it.
‘Already several countries around the world have some of the 4th dose testing in people at high risk,’ Bancel told CNBC’s Squawk Box.
‘There’s a big wave of BA.2 variant in Europe right now, as many public health experts have said this should start in the U.S. very soon.’
A growing list of experts are saying the exact opposite, though.
‘I would not be surprised at all, if we do see somewhat of an uptick,’ Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and someone who has frequently been among the more cautious voices during the pandemic, said at a Washington Post event this week.
‘I don’t really see, unless something changes dramatically, that there would be a major surge.’
While the stealth variant has failed to make a major impact yet on case numbers, data from overseas – referenced by Bancel – is cause for some concern.
Some countries that had experienced declining cases for months, like the UK, France and Denmark, suddenly saw infection rates start to surge last week. Cases seem to have stabilized in these nations and the growth has stopped for now, though.
Internationally, the World Health Organization reports that there were over 12 million Covid cases globally last week, a seven percent jump from the previous week. An updated report from the agency is expected on Tuesday afternoon.