Amid a gradual increase in cases, leaders in Orange County and Altamonte Springs hope to soon learn more about exactly what types of COVID-19 are spreading within their communities.
The best place to do this? Toilet.
“The data gaps from home testing and asymptomatic individuals mean that sewage testing is more critical than ever to our continued understanding of this virus and its mutations,” said Ed Torres, director of Orange County Utilities. , in an email.
Altamonte and Orange County have been searching sewage for signs of viruses in people’s stools since the early months of the pandemic. Since then, the virus has mutated hundreds, if not thousands of times, and the majority of those mutations have made no difference. But some, like the omicron BA.2 subvariant, seem to be more contagious than others.
Over the past several months, there has been a gradual increase in COVID-19 in many Florida counties and a slight increase in hospitalizations for COVID-19. They are up 7% in Orange and Seminole counties May 24-30 from the previous week, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. The data does not differentiate between admissions due to COVID-19 and an incidentally positive COVID-19 test.
On May 26, the upward trend continued, and omicron mutations were found in every detectable viral genome in both the Altamonte Springs sewer service area, which covers northern Orange and North counties. south of Seminole, and in the Orange County sewer service area.
About 90% of those viral genomes were the omicron BA.2 subvariant, which appears to spread more easily than the omicron variant but does not appear to be more severe, the American Medical Association said in late April.
Soon, executives will confirm whether omicron subvariants BA.2.12.1, BA.4 and BA.5 are also circulating in central Florida, said Sarah Lux, spokeswoman for Orange County Utilities.
Orange will begin investigation for BA.2.12.1 this week, Lux said, although multiple samples are needed to confirm accuracy. There is no timetable for the end of the tests for BA.4 and BA.5, she added.
“Knowing how many variants are circulating and the unique attributes of those variants (whether they are more contagious, have more severe symptoms, etc.) can encourage residents to follow appropriate health processes to protect others,” Lux said in an email to the Sentinel.
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The omicron BA.2.12.1 subvariant is the most common variant in the United States for the week ending May 28, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website.
BA.2 comes second, and only a small fraction of cases – around 6% – can be attributed to BA.1, BA.3, BA.4 or BA.5, but that could change.
Scientists are still determining the characteristics of BA.4 and BA.5, but a draft of a study by scientists at Columbia University’s Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center suggests they may be more likely to infect people who are immune to prior COVID-19 infection or vaccination, although they may be more protected from severe infection due to their prior infection.
Regardless of the variants in circulation, COVID-19 can be serious.
Preliminary unpublished data suggests that, contrary to popular belief, omicron may not be inherently less severe than other variants. Instead, factors such as widespread vaccination may have made it seem less severe, according to researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, Minerva University and Harvard Medical School, although more research is needed.
The CDC currently recommends everyone wear masks on public transportation and recommends most people get a booster at least five months after their first two shots, according to its website. People over 50 should receive a second booster at least four months after the first.
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