Though the federal government announced the end of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency back in May, the virus continues to circulate across the United States. The CDC reported a near 22% increase in weekly COVID hospitalizations in the last week of August, spiking from 15,050 the week prior to 17,418 admissions. This is consistent with the country’s steady increase in recorded hospitalizations during the summer months that saw a jump of 30,000 cases in July and August in comparison to May and June.
The majority of recent COVID cases come from new variant EG.5, an Omicron descendant which has become the dominant strain worldwide. The strain notably contains a single mutation that allows the virus to evade antibodies acquired from vaccination and previous infection. This fall’s recently released COVID booster will offer some protection against the strain, as it was created to protect against a variant similar to EG.5. Though vulnerable groups may have to wait a few weeks to receive this booster, the World Health Organization (WHO) assured the public that despite the spike in cases, “…the public health risk posed by EG.5 is evaluated as low at the global level.”
However, more concerning than the EG.5 strain, which first appeared this past summer, is the recent emergence of a new variant called BA.2.86, named “Pirola,” which reportedly contains almost 30 new mutations and is predicted to be significantly more resistant against current antibodies. While global cases remain sparse, recent detection of the strain in New York City wastewater has caught the attention of local health officials. In response to concerns, NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan issued a statement explaining that while it may be more elusive to the vaccinated, “Based on the degree of mutations — while vaccinated people continue to be protected against serious illness — this variant may be more likely to evade immunity that has developed from vaccination or prior infection than earlier variants. But there is currently no indication that it causes more severe illness.”
Amidst the uncertainty, many scientists are wary of a possible COVID surge during the fall and winter season, and in turn — after having lifted the majority of its COVID policies — CUNY (also meaning) Queens College may soon face pressures to reimplement some safety measures in order to protect its students and faculty if a surge does occur — as usually happens during the winter months with viruses.
The ultimate question is whether or not a jump will happen with the Pirola, or, as Dr. Scott Roberts tells Yale Medicine, “The big question is if BA.2.86 will have the same exponential growth that Omicron did — in terms of case numbers — or if it will die out, which is certainly what everyone hopes,” Dr. Roberts says. Omicron first appeared in South Africa in November of 2021, with the first confirmed case in the United States being detected in November 30th that year.
Urban Studies Professor and Public Health Specialist Dr. Sherry Baron emphasized the importance of Queens College providing equitable access to COVID safety resources: “Commercially sold test kits are quite expensive, so having them on campus and distributed for free makes access less of an issue and supports testing as soon as someone is symptomatic or exposed to someone with COVID,” Dr. Baron said, adding that, “The campus can help facilitate access to yearly free vaccinations for both influenza and COVID.” She noted that while the QCard no longer being required for campus access does not add substantial risk to COVID spread, the campus should continue making masks available for student use.
Biology professor Alicia Meléndez concurred with Dr. Baron, stating, “I think we at QC, and everywhere else, have to find a way to live with COVID. The most important things remain early detection, vaccination and masking, if someone is sick.”
Beyond campus resources, students can take additional steps to protect themselves against a potential COVID surge. In a Spectrum New NY1 interview, Dean of the CUNY School of Public Health Dr. Ayman El-Mohandes explained that those interested in getting boosted need not wait until the release of the newest shot, since “These new mutants are happening because of transmission, and the more we allow transmission to happen, the more we’re going to get new strains.” Dr. El-Mohandes added that, “In situations where there’s crowding, especially if you are vulnerable, elderly [or] immunocompromised, take extra precautions. Avoid crowds and be sensible in using a mask when you think it’s going to protect you.” It’s worth noting that both Moderna and Pfizer claim their new boosters have been highly effective against Pirola in testing.
Dr. Baron relayed that sentiment by pointing out that, “Maintaining the health of our community is a social responsibility, not an individual responsibility.” She emphasized that students who are sick should stay home and isolate, saying that, “Faculty can support students who miss class for illnesses, and students should not take advantage of this by falsely using the excuse of illness if they miss class but are not sick.”
While not much is known yet of the Pirola variant, and the two largest companies producing COVID vaccinations are optimistic about their chances of combatting the variant, it’s worth monitoring as we approach the winter months. Visit the Health Services Center located on the third floor of Frese Hall or their website at https://www.qc.cuny.edu/health/ if you are facing health concerns.