New York State Department of Health and Wadsworth Center Continue to Monitor for COVID-19 Variants

Utilizing Dual Approach of Wastewater Surveillance and Laboratory Analysis as New Strains Emerge

ALBANY, N.Y. (August 24, 2023) – The New York State Department of Health and the Wadsworth Center continue monitoring for and analyzing samples of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as reports emerge of new strains. The ongoing dual surveillance strategies of wastewater surveillance and laboratory clinical analysis, conducted with partners at Syracuse University and across the state, have proven vital to New York State's ability to understand variant spread and the potential impact on public health.

"While the public has returned to normal activities, the Department of Health remains vigilant for changes to the virus that could further threaten our public health," State Health Commissioner Dr. James McDonald said. "We continue to diligently work as new strains have emerged, with a particular focus on one highly-divergent strain being seen elsewhere."

The strain in question, BA.2.86, has been found in cases in Israel, Denmark, South Africa, Michigan, Virginia, and has been designated a Variant Under Monitoring (VUM) by WHO. It appears to be the most genetically different strain since the original Omicron variant. These significant changes are important to note as mutations may allow the virus to evade prior immunity.

In response to identifying this new strain, the Wadsworth Center immediately enhanced early detection efforts in New York State. Sequence information was transferred to collaborators at Syracuse University who routinely analyze wastewater data across the state. Working with Wadsworth, the analysts searched all wastewater data from the last six months to confirm the new strain was not detected in New York.

This process will continue to be used to help monitor for the variant in new wastewater samples. Additionally, Wadsworth Center is coordinating with numerous health care professionals across the state, and collaborating laboratories, to expand the pool of clinical COVID samples being submitted for analysis. This enhanced surveillance program provides a greatly increased opportunity for detecting BA.2.86 should it enter New York State.

Wadsworth Center Laboratory of Viral Disease Chief Dr. Kirsten St. George said, "As we look for this new strain, it is important to note that we do not yet know if it will cause more severe disease or if it will evade prior immunity. Scientists across the globe are working to answer those questions right now."

Concern about the new strain comes as the Department continues to report increases in COVID-19 hospital admissions, while also urging individuals who get COVID-19 to talk to their healthcare provider about treatment to reduce the chance of severe outcomes.

Those who think they may be ill with COVID-19 should first get tested. At-home tests are available at local pharmacies. If a test is positive, consult a healthcare provider about treatment, as it's important to begin treatment soon after the onset of symptoms to ensure the utmost effectiveness. COVID-19 medications are widely available by prescription through doctors, pharmacies, and health care clinics. Antivirals such as Paxlovid are most effective when started within five days of the onset of symptoms. Individuals who do not have a regular health care provider can find locations for treatment here.

Those who test positive should also avoid contact with others, including staying home from work, school, and social activities.

The key to preventing serious illness and spread of COVID-19 is to take precautions:

  • Get vaccinated and boosted when eligible. Learn more here.
  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially before eating.
  • Avoid touching the eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue and discard it in a closed container.
  • Clean frequently touched surfaces and objects.
  • And consider wearing a mask to reduce your chance of exposure.

Individuals who have not yet been vaccinated or are behind on booster doses can find COVID-19 vaccine sites here.

More information about variants detected in New York can be found here.

More information about wastewater surveillance in New York State can be found here.