New version of omicron detected in Maine as wastewater tests shows steep decline in COVID-19

Researchers have detected the first cases of a new omicron variant that is being monitored around the world and appears to be more contagious than the version that swept through Maine and the rest of the country during the past three months.

Based on experience in other parts of the world, however, the new version of the virus is not expected to drive a new surge in cases in Maine.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a Twitter post that two cases of the omicron BA.2 variant were detected by Jackson Laboratory researchers who monitor for virus mutations in Maine.

“It is one of the ‘sub-lineages’ of the Omicron family of #COVID19 viruses. Early data suggest that BA.2 is more contagious than the current #Omicron lineage in the US, BA.1,” Shah posted.

While scientists are still studying the new variant, immunity – whether from previous infections or vaccinations – still appears to be effective protection against infection based on preliminary data.

Testing wastewater finds “people who are symptomatic as well as asymptomatic, people who are tested and not tested,” says Dr. Yolanda Brooks, assistant professor of biology at St. Joseph’s College in Standish. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“And though BA.2 sequences are increasing in proportion relative to other omicron sublineages, there is a reported decline in overall cases globally,” Shah said.

“What does this mean for you? First, getting #vaccinated and boosted remains among the best strategies to stay safe. If you test positive, the same guidance applies: stay home, and reach out to a health care provider about possible treatments.”

Meanwhile, wastewater testing data released on Monday shows a continued sharp decline in the presence of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 in most cities and towns participating in the testing, according to data published by the state.

Some cities are showing a steep dropoff in virus prevalence since the omicron wave hit in December. At Portland Water District’s Westbrook plant, for instance, virus prevalence has plummeted by more than 98 percent since late December and early January, and 97 percent at the East End plant in Portland. Bangor, Augusta and Lewiston-Auburn have also experienced sharp declines since early February, when those cities and several others in Maine began wastewater testing for COVID-19.

Wastewater testing gives real-time, accurate data, scientists say, and is not subject to issues that arise in counting cases, such as the proliferation of at-home tests, and in Maine’s case, a substantial backlog that is skewing results. The backlog at one point had reached nearly 60,000 cases, and as Maine worked through the backlog, reported case counts often reflected illnesses that occurred weeks or even months beforehand. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that the backlog should have been eliminated by the end of last week.

The Maine CDC does not report new case counts on Mondays because it does not process tests over the weekend, so the next release of case count data will be on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, hospitalizations remained unchanged on Monday, with 168 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, the same as on Sunday. The number of COVID-19 patients in ICU ticked down from 40 on Sunday to 39 on Monday.

Also, the U.S. CDC changed its indoor mask recommendations late last week, and 70 percent of the country is now recommended to make indoor masking optional, including in schools. Much of Maine is still listed in the “high transmission” category, which maintains indoor masking recommendations, but the formula still takes into account case counts. Maine’s case counts have been artificially high since Feb. 15 as the state goes through its backlog.

“On February 25, 2022, the U.S. CDC revised the way it measures the risk of COVID-19 spread in each county. Maine CDC is reviewing how the change affects Maine and will update this website when that review is done. Deaths, hospitalizations, and wastewater screening data remain the best ways to measure the impact of COVID-19,” according to the Maine CDC website.

This story will be updated.




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