WThe World Health Organization (WHO), when the first COVID-19 cases began to appear around the globe, was pressured into declaring the disease a global pandemic. The announcement provided the key to more funding, emergency measures, and resources to manage cases.
Now in 60 minutes interview, President Biden has said that “the pandemic is over.” He cited the fact that people are no longer wearing masks, that large public events such as the Detroit Auto Show have resumed in person, and that concerns about COVID-19 no longer dictate our behaviors in the way they did over the past two years.
Public health professionals are concerned about this declaration. They fear that it will allow people to stop the fragile network of behavior that is trying to prevent a highly contagious disease from spreading to other parts of the world. It’s also a concerning sentiment to arrive just as health officials in the U.S. launch a booster campaign to reinstate waning protection from vaccines before the fall and winter, when respiratory viruses like SARS-CoV-2 tend to have free reign.
The reality is that while Biden’s statement that hardly anyone is wearing masks is true, that’s largely the result of weariness on the public’s part, and because a judge in Florida overturned federal mandates requiring masks in government buildings and on mass transit. The virus’s reduced threat cannot be understood solely by the fact that masks have disappeared.
The President’s declaration is “counterproductive because it reinforces the impression that many people have that we don’t have to worry about COVID-19 any more,” says Dr. Eric Toner, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. “By pandemic, most people mean that people around the world are susceptible to an infectious disease for which people do not have immunity, and therefore could cause serious illness. While the current pandemic may be less serious than in previous years, this is not true. However, 65,000 more cases are being reported every day. We also have 450 deaths per day. This annualized total is 170,000. So it’s not over.”
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Yes, there are fewer infections and deaths due to COVID-19. This is a good thing. However, more than 500 people die each week due to COVID-19. Worse, the number of hospitalizations is increasing, particularly among the elderly.
The assumption that the pandemic is over is likely to lead people into a complacency, which infectious disease experts consider premature. Even if we’re moving toward a reality in which COVID-19 becomes more like the flu, with an annual (or more frequent) shot, COVID-19 still causes far more infections and deaths than flu does on average. It is highly contagious, with the Omicron subvariant and newer variants BA.4/BA.5. And while they don’t seem to be causing more serious disease, here’s the thing about viruses: the more infections a virus causes, and the more hosts it infects, the more chances it has to replicate. Each time the virus makes more copies, it generates mutations. There is a greater chance that one of the mutations might lead to an even more severe form.
COVID-19 has become a much less serious threat than it was in the past. Vaccines and other antiviral therapies have made this a reality. These have been made freely available to Americans because COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency by the U.S. government. This allowed Congress to allocate funds for the provision of free vaccines and treatments to all American citizens. HHS (Department of Health and Human Services) renewed this designation last October. The WHO still hasn’t declared victory over COVID-19.
It could be dangerous to declare the pandemic over in order not to have the funding that is needed for the Omicron booster. “When the administration is trying to get new money from Congress for COVID-19, it just seems like an ill-timed and inaccurate message,” says Toner. Secretary Xavier Becerra stated that the HHS already has transferred funds from other services in order to offer these boosters at no cost to public.
What is the end date for COVID-19? The definition of a pandemic and the time it ends are not defined. A pandemic is defined by the extent of the disease and its spread around the globe. Similar criteria would apply to the decline in the number of cases or the spreading of illness. But those decisions are as much economic as they are epidemiological—as a pandemic, COVID-19 will cost the global economy $12.5 trillion by 2024, according to the latest estimates from the International Monetary Fund. That funding has put pressure on governments in both the developing and developed worlds. If COVID-19 does not become a pandemic it could mean that governments are less likely to spend significant resources for things such as testing, vaccine programs and treatment. With the White House declaring the pandemic over it might motivate governors from states already inclined to minimize COVID-19 response methods to completely eliminate them. That in turn could lead to lower protection as more people who aren’t boosted gather indoors, unmasked, during the colder weather when viruses spread more easily.
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This winter will be an important one when it comes to seeing where the pandemic goes from here—with a new, more closely matched booster to the Omicron variant, it could continue to decline, getting closer to behaving like influenza. Or, if people believe that they don’t have to worry about COVID-19 any more, Omicron, or even a yet-to-named variant, could lead to another surge in cases.
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