A pair of rapidly spreading omicron subvariants have overtaken BA.5 as the dominant COVID-19 strains circulating in the U.S., according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
BQ.1 is now the top strain. It was responsible for more than 25% of new coronavirus infections this week, according to CDC’s weekly variant update. That’s up from just 7% of infections a month ago. The subvariant is also increasing globally, going from 13% of cases to 16% last week, according to the World Health Organization.
And BQ.1.1 is close behind, causing over 24% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. this week. That’s up from 5% of infections a month ago. The pair raises concerns because they appear to be highly contagious and adept at evading previous immunity, but they don’t seem to be more severe than previous strains.
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While the pair of subvariants spreads, previously dominant BA.5 has declined significantly. This week it was responsible for 24% of new infections, which is down from 65% of cases a month ago. It’s the first time since July that BA.5 hasn’t topped the CDC’s variant update.
The trend comes as the Biden administration is pushing for Americans to get updated COVID-19 booster shots before the holidays to help mitigate a potential fall and winter coronavirus wave. But uptake of the shots, which target the omicron subvariant as well as the original coronavirus strain, has been slow, with only 11% of the eligible population getting the shots.
Health care systems are already under stress as the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, surge. Experts asked the Biden administration this week to declare a national emergency to respond to the rise in pediatric hospitalizations due to the respiratory illnesses circulating.
The Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote in a letter that the “confluence of these capacity issues in pediatric hospitals and communities requires nimbleness and flexibilities that can only be provided through a Presidential declaration of an emergency under the Stafford Act or National Emergencies Act and a Public Health Emergency declaration.”
But the Biden administration evaded the call, with an official saying that “public health emergencies are determined based on nationwide data, science trends, and the insight of public health experts.”