The surge isn’t over. New COVID variants may lift case numbers again

Two new highly infectious and immune-evasive coronavirus variants are now dominant in the United States, according to estimates released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and together they likely will drive the Bay Area’s long spring surge well into summer, health experts say.

It’s not yet clear exactly what impact BA.4 and BA.5 — both subvariants of omicron — will have in the Bay Area, where cases may be climbing again after several weeks of sluggish decline. It’s become apparent, though, that the pandemic pattern that people have become accustomed to over the past 2½ years — a rise in cases over several weeks, followed by a relatively short plateau and then a rapid drop — isn’t playing out this time.

Instead, the Bay Area has been snared in a sixth wave of infection since early April, with cases likely at or near their highest levels of the pandemic, though COVID hospitalizations and deaths have remained comparatively low. The new variants could prolong the current surge or cause a fresh spike in cases, and they could put pressure on health care systems frayed from nearly three years of pandemic stress.

Nationally, the spring, and now summer, surge has been fueled by a cascade of variants — all derived from the original omicron that emerged last November — that have cycled through the population at an astonishing pace, like sprinters passing a baton in a race. Each variant has been more infectious than its parent, and they increasingly are adopting mutations that help them evade immunity, too.

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