European trends indicate an omicron variant ‘bump’ may be coming |

European trends indicate an omicron variant ‘bump’ may be coming

Jason Auslander
Aspen Times

A COVID-19 omicron variant thought to be causing case increases in the U.K. and Europe was detected in Aspen wastewater last month, though more recent samples have been free of it, an official said Wednesday.

And while the number of new COVID-19 cases in Pitkin County remains relatively low, the numbers reported Wednesday on the county’s online dashboard were not accurate because of a reporting glitch by the state public health department that was in the process of being fixed, said Josh Vance, county epidemiologist.

“We saw a steep decline but a lot of that we attribute to cases not being reported to us,” Vance said. “But we’re in a much different place (now) than we were a couple months ago.”

Researchers and analysts currently are tracking four different subvariants of omicron. One of those is known as BA.2, which is “pretty different genetically” from BA.1, which caused the surge in COVID-19 cases in Pitkin County, Colorado and across the country in January, he said.

Early research into BA.2 indicates that it causes a milder case of COVID-19 similar to the first omicron cases. However, it may be even more transmissible than BA.1, which was already much more contagious than any other version of the virus previously seen. One study showed it to be 30% more transmissible, which would make it quite a bit more contagious, Vance said.

The U.K. is currently seeing a greater preponderance of BA.2 over BA.1, and is experiencing an increase in cases. Vance said the same situation appears to be occurring in other European countries like France, Italy and Germany.

“The belief is that it’s really taking over there,” he said. “Anytime we have a more contagious variant, it is concerning and something we’re trying to watch very closely.”

It remains unclear whether those who contracted the original omicron variant — BA.1 — are susceptible to reinfection by BA.2. The U.K. and Europe experienced the omicron peak earlier than the U.S. and use some of the different vaccines available, so it’s hard to tell yet whether the uptick in cases is the result of reinfection, waning vaccine protection or other factors, he said.

“The data is not really there yet,” Vance said. “There’s not a lot of research now (the new increase in cases) is caused by reinfection or it’s catching people who didn’t get BA.1.”

Pitkin County regularly sends wastewater samples to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment lab for analysis, and a sample sent Feb. 7 contained BA.2, he said. However, the latest sample from March 10 did not find any of that omicron variant in the wastewater.

Pitkin County public health officials also send the state lab samples from each new positive COVID-19 PCR test in the county. None of those local samples have, so far, come up positive for BA.2, Vance said.

“It tells us that we had low enough levels or it was not present at all in the latest (wastewater sample),” he said. “We’re not seeing evidence of BA.2 in the community. Obviously, as the entire pandemic has gone, that could change very quickly.”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. has generally been about two weeks behind infection trends in the U.K. and Europe, Vance said.

As to whether BA.2 could cause another wave of cases in Pitkin County and the U.S., Vance said solid information is simply not yet available. But because the initial omicron surge infected so many the first time around, coupled with the effectiveness of vaccines, means public health officials don’t think another omicron wave will be as intense.

“From the analysis I’ve seen … there is an expectation of another bump (in cases), but that it won’t rise to the levels reached in January,” he said.

Pitkin County’s online dashboard indicates that just six new COVID-19 cases were detected in the past seven days, with an incidence rate of 35 per 100,000. In addition, an email that went out from the county Tuesday informed residents that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that the community level of COVID-19 is “low.”

That is most likely not correct, Vance said Wednesday.

The CDC receives the information it reports from CDPHE, which has been having a coding problem that did not properly label COVID-19 cases from Pitkin County. The state of Colorado added more Pitkin County cases to the totals Wednesday, bringing the county’s incidence rate to 73 per 100,000 people. Several days worth of additional cases since March 1, however, were still missing as of Wednesday, he said.

The local incidence rate is now probably around 100 per 100,000 people, Vance said. And that is still a low rate of local infection.

Public health officials are not receiving outbreak reports from local businesses, and Aspen Valley Hospital has not admitted a COVID-19 patient in the past 28 days, he said.

“We have definitely decreased over the last two months,” Vance said.

Hospital CEO Dave Ressler confirmed Wednesday that the facility remains “comfortable” on all levels, including COVID-19 admissions, staff out with virus-like symptoms and the hospital’s ability to transfer the most ill patients to other facilities.

“(We) are seeing some cases but much less,” Ressler said in a text message to the Times. “(That) reflects community low incidence (rates).”

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