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New omicron subvariant BA.2 identified in North Carolina

A 3D-generated image of the coronavirus variant of concern known as omicron. The little bumps are spike proteins (see definition below).
Uma Shankar Sharma/Getty Images
A 3D-generated image of the coronavirus variant of concern known as omicron. The little bumps are spike proteins (see definition below).

Laboratories in North Carolina have identified the presence of a new strain of the omicron COVID-19 variant in the state, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services confirmed Tuesday.

To date, the NCDHHS said that its own State Laboratory of Public Health has not identified the subvariant called BA.2 omicron.

BA.2 is a strain of the highly contagious omicron variant that appears to spread about 30% more easily than the omicron variant, according to the World Health Organization.

There is no data to suggest that BA.2 leads to more severe disease than previous Omicron sub-variants, according to a BBC report.

Because the new strain quickly overtook the original omicron in South Africa and other countries and has even caused a second omicron surge in Denmark, researchers have been bracing for the same thing to happen in the U.S.

So far, the number of BA.2 infections has been minimal in the United States.

"BA.2 represents a very small proportion of sequenced viruses in the United States at this time," Summer Tonizzo of the NCDHHS' Office of Communications stated in an email.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said BA.2 now accounts for 3.8% of all omicron cases in the United States. The CDC's COVID-19 Data Tracker showed in the week ending Feb. 19 that the new strain accounted for 1.9% of omicron cases in the Southeast region of the U.S. including North Carolina.

Tonizzo said the best way to protect oneself from serious illness, hospitalization, and death from all COVID-19 variants includes getting vaccinated and boosted as soon as you are eligible.

According to the NCDHHS website, as of noon Tuesday, there are 1,716 new COVID-19 cases in the state and 2,215 people are currently hospitalized.

The identification of this new strain comes a little less than a week after Gov. Roy Cooper encouraged local school systems and governments to end mask mandates.

Since then, several school systems across the state have ended mask mandates. Guilford and Nash County school boards voted Monday night to end the mandates immediately.

Wake and Mecklenburg County school boards were expected to vote Tuesday on whether to end their mandates.

On Thursday, the General Assembly passed a bill that would give parents permission to let their K-12 students opt out of mask-wearing mandates set by local education boards.

Cooper did not say whether he would sign the bill.

As for local governments, Raleigh and Wake County's mask mandates will expire Friday. Mecklenburg's is set to end Saturday.

Orange County leaders stated that their county's mask mandate will stay in place for now. County officials, along with Chapel Hill and other community officials stated their responsibility to neighboring UNC Hospitals as a reason to continue the mandate.

The City of Durham and Durham County announced Thursday that masks will still be recommended in city and county facilities.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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