Newark is extending the city’s indoor facemask mandate for another two weeks as state health officials warn that they’ve detected cases of a new strain of COVID-19 in New Jersey: the omicron “stealth variant.”
The decision for Newark means that patrons will no longer need to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination in order to gain access to certain businesses, such as restaurants and gyms, but will still need to wear a face covering until Feb. 28.
Proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test will be required for events with at least 250 attendees, the mayor’s office said.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said in a Thursday statement accompanying the new executive order that declines in both the delta and omicron variants justified loosening some restrictions, but nonetheless “we are not at the end of the pandemic.”
He continued, “Therefore we need to remain vigilant to stay on this path of progress.”
His office did not return requests for information on this new variant.
Newark’s restrictions – and those around the state – are a far cry from the business closures and capacity limits that were in place throughout 2020 and 2021, which ravaged the stated economy and fueled historic surges in unemployment levels.
Current restrictions, at most, extend to settings like health care facilities where facemasks are required, and vaccine mandates for state workers and health care personnel.
New Jersey State Epidemiologist Christina Tan, at a weekly COVID-19 press briefing on Feb. 16, said that health officials have detected several cases of this new variant, which is a more infectious subvariant of omicron, and is harder to detect with existing tests.
Over the course of the last month, figures like daily cases, total hospitalizations, fatalities, intensive care and ventilator count have all reached their lowest levels in months as omicron wanes.
This new subvariant, formally called the BA.2 variant, was detected in just 0.5% of 2,000 positive test cases genomically sequenced during the four week period ending Jan. 29, according to weekly figures from the New Jersey Department of Health.
“The significance of the stealth variant is unknown at this time in terms of whether it causes a different presentation of disease,” Tan said on Wednesday.
The “stealth” component of this new title comes from the fact that the variant is much easier to be overlooked in the PCR tests that have so far been used to detect the omicron strand. It’s nonetheless detectable via genomic sequencing done in New Jersey’s labs.
“The important news is we still can pick up this variant,” Tan continued. “We are detecting this. Only time will tell what the characteristics of BA.2 illness is.”
Variants – or mutations – are inevitable in any virus or other microorganism. Some like the alpha, delta and omicron variants end up accounting for the majority of cases, while others like the “mu” variant have fizzled out.
Omicron quickly overtook delta as the dominant strain, and according to recent data made up 97.5% of cases that were sequenced.
State health officials are nonetheless stressing that New Jerseyans need to continue getting the COVID-19 vaccine and the booster shot when eligible, as they’ve shown to be effective against the omicron surge this winter.
Just over half of the 5.7 million New Jerseyans eligible for a booster have done so, according to state health data.