The virus that causes COVID-19 is sticking around, in fact, Guam Department of Public Health and Social Services officials have been notified that there’s another variant that has emerged in India, known as BA.2.75.
“Which is now taking over and that’s something to keep an eye out for. But that also belongs to the omicron family of the variant,” Dr. Annette David said during the COVID-19 weekly briefing. “It’s better than having something completely new, for sure. I think what that means in terms of the clinical prevention strategy is to try to accelerate getting the fortified vaccines, the ones based on the original strain of the virus and the omicron strain that may confer better immunity going forward.”
”This last three to four weeks we have seen an uptick in kids being admitted to the hospital, some of them pretty serious. In fact, you may recall we had a death in the lowest age range which is the 6-month-old, but, during that time we also had a child in the pediatrics ICU that was only three weeks old who had multiple episodes of turning blue,” Dr. Robert "Bob" Leon Guerrero, DPHSS physician and immunization adviser, said.
Leon Guerrero has seen the increase firsthand as he oversees pediatric admissions at Guam Memorial Hospital.
“It seems to be the pediatric cases were increasing and the seriousness of their cases also increased and that’s why we were seeing more admissions to the pediatric ward for COVID-19,” Leon Guerrero said.
Although most cases of COVID-19 recently have been asymptomatic, Leon Guerrero said, more serious infections are being seen among children.
“The best way to avoid this is to get your kids vaccinated. We are vaccinating kids as young as 6 months, so, unfortunately that wouldn’t take care of the three-week-old, but again if we had everybody vaccinated, the likelihood of that 3-week-old catching COVID-19 would have been much, much less,” Leon Guerrero said.
While health officials have yet to pinpoint the cause behind the increase in youth cases, they do have an idea with regard to the contributing factors, such as the lower vaccination rates and the optional use of masks in public.
“I think that’s a big factor, the vaccination of children started as the last part of the vaccination strategy and the uptick has not been as good as the uptick for adults on island at this point and time. That’s why Dr. Bob keeps sending out the call to all pediatricians and parents to ensure that all the children get vaccinated,” David said. “You have to think of it as most adults here on Guam have either been vaccinated or got the infection so they have some immunity. The children, in terms of that who have not been vaccinated, basically have a very naive immune system so they are very susceptible to get the infection and, once they get the infection, the chances of severity are always there.”
She said the island needs to get ahead of the virus and the infection in children.
Until now, COVID-19 restrictions, such as the stay-at-home order, have helped protect the island’s young.
“The isolation was keeping them protected to a large extent, but that’s over now. Then, of course, with school starting, in school-age children you expect to see that spike in infections,” David said.
That’s why Public Health is trying to get vaccination clinics in schools, Leon Guerrero said.
“We are going to be trying to get into two schools a week to vaccinate while they are attending classes. So, for those parents who can’t bring their kids for whatever reason during the vaccination hours, we will bring the vaccines to your children,” Leon Guerrero said.
To be clear, health officials noted that the vaccines to be offered at Guam Department of Education schools are not mandatory.
The seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 cases on island has been consistently under 100 positivity cases per day for the last two weeks, which is “good,” according to Public Health territorial epidemiologist Ann Pobutsky.
“The overall positivity rate is around 10% and the local positivity rate, which was spiking up there, has recently gone down to below 20%,” Pobutsky said.
While there has been a surge of cases, Pobutsky said, “we are not seeing any indicators above our surge levels for the intensive care unit. We have been over for thresholds for the hospital, which is 20, we have been over that. But we haven’t hit any highs for the hospital census and the deaths are still sporadic, so we are looking really good.”
In regard to deaths related to COVID-19, the Joint Information Center on Thursday revised the total count.
”After a review of all possible COVID-19-related deaths, one previously counted COVID-19-related death has been removed and the COVID-19-related fatality count has been adjusted to 389,” JIC said in its release.
Earlier this week, Pobutsky told The Guam Daily Post that the minisurge seen recently may very well be the BA.5 strain of the omicron variant. She said the BA.5 variant could have been on island since July.
“That means that this so-called surge is ending. We presume it’s BA.5,” she said.
“This particular surge, this is the omicron variant, the deaths especially has not increased. Even the hospitalizations is up, but not as high as the previous delta and initial omicron series,” Leon Guerrero said.
The uptick in cases seen in the 75-and-up age group has gone down since last week, Pobutsky noted.
“All the adult groups are decreasing and converging, which is good,” Pobutsky said.
But, cases among youth are increasing, she said.
“We just saw a little uptick in the kids, 0 to 11 and 12 to 17, and that is probably because school just started, we were expecting this,” she said.
Most cases continue to be asymptomatic, she added.
Although David reported the community risk level continues to be high, Pobutsky noted the BA.5 surge is not as bad as variants that appeared earlier.
“The hospitalizations and ICU again are not as bad, we think that’s because so many people are vaccinated, they are not getting hospitalized or dying. It looks kind of like where we were before delta, a year ago. We don’t have a surge indicator for deaths, but even deaths, it looks like where we were at the end of 2020, beginning of 2021. A little bit more, but the same pattern,” Pobutsky said.
BA.5 is part of the omicron family, which could explain why it’s not as bad as the earlier delta variant, according to David.
“From the original strain of viruses you can see several branches and you could see that delta was a completely different branch and this may explain why delta was so much more severe in terms of hospitalizations and deaths. Then you’ll see the strains that we have been worried about, the BA.2 and BA.5, are all really cousins, … and emerged from the original omicron strain and that may help explain why we not seeing as severe hospitalizations, … from the BA.5. Because very likely there has been some overlap in the immune response. There’s the vaccination, but there’s also people who were previously infected with the BA.2 may have some residual immunity against the BA.5.”