While it may just be a blip, the CDC confirms that wastewater samples from a third of the country’s sample sites show increasing case counts, right while China and Europe are seeing big COVID surges.
I know I’m not the only one looking at the COVID-19 case surges in China and Europe, and saying to myself, “Goddammit, here we go again.” In the United Kingdom in particular, the new BA.2 variant is responsible for a 48% increase in in cases in just one week, right as they dropped restrictions — though there are other factors to figure in there, including low uptake of boosters, wintry weather pushing people indoors, and low-ish vaccination rates of people aged 18 to 39.
Here in the U.S., everyone from President Biden to San Francisco Mayor London Breed is eager to rush everyone back to the office, and you have to wonder if this could result in the same old shit we saw with last summer’s Delta surge and the December/January Omicron surge.
We mention shit, because monitoring human waste is one of our most effective tools in assessing the presence of COVID-19. And NBC News reports that there is an uptick in COVID-19 being detected in wastewater in a third of the communities where the CDC has sample sites. “A third of the agency’s wastewater sample sites showed a rise in Covid cases from March 1 to March 10,” according to NBC News.
Here in the Bay Area, public health professionals are sounding the alarm.
“Right on our shores, we see a tsunami heading our way,” UC Berkeley Public Health’s Dr. John Swartzberg told KPIX. “When the amount of virus in wastewater goes up, that’s the time to really start to worry about the fact that in one week, two weeks or three weeks, we may see cases starting to go up.”
And this may be being driven by the newer Omicron subvariant, BA.2.
Case counts are thankfully down in the Bay Area, and the U.S. at large. But the above map shows the wastewater sites that the CDC is monitoring, and any of the dots that are in yellow, orange or red show areas where we are seeing cases increase. This could be a sign of big trouble, or these could be blips on a few radars.
“While wastewater levels are generally very low across the board, we are seeing an uptick of sites reporting an increase,” Amy Kirby of the CDC’s wastewater monitoring program said in a statement to NBC News. “These bumps may simply reflect minor increase from very low levels to still low levels.”
Still, whenever we’ve seen surges in one country, they typically repeat. What started in China with the original SARS-CoV-2 made its way here. The Delta variant in India made its way here. The Omicron variant in South Africa made its way here.
And there is evidence to suggest that the BA.2 variant is fueling something in California and elsewhere. As ABC 7 reports, the new variant — thought to be about 30% more infectious than the already very infectious Omicron variant — is appearing in increasing numbers in San Francisco's wastewater, and elsewhere in the state.
Experts do not believe this will amount to a major wave, especially here in the Bay Area, but there may be some late-pandemic uptick in cases to come.
Alexandria Boehm, professor of environmental engineering at Stanford University, tells ABC 7 that the uptick in BA.2 is noticeable in the recent San Francisco and Oceanside wastewater samples, but it remains small.
"Until this last week where we had this little bump in wastewater concentration or BA.2 also increase," Boehm says. "If you look at the big scheme of things we've gone down quite a bit."
The current hotspot in the US for BA.2 appears to be Chicago — and experts say that there's no evidence that BA.2 is any more virulent than the regular Omicron strain.
"It will slowly, but surely overtake omicron," says Dr. Warner Greene, a senior investigator with the Gladstone Institutes, speaking to ABC 7. "It's moving at a slower pace, but still it will likely become the globally dominant variant."
Image: @jkoblitz via Unsplash