The emergency phase of Covid-19 is over – at least in official terms. The World Health Organization declared an end to the global Covid health emergency last week, and the US will end his federal public health emergency for Covid on Thursday. These announcements come a full year after the European Union moved to end emergency declaration.
As global and national officials roll back the widespread data tracking, intergovernmental coordination and testing programs that were essential to the emergency phase of the pandemic, this move raises questions about what has been learned from this three-year battle, as well as the vulnerabilities that could be exposed if a new, serious Covid variant – or an entirely new pathogen – emerges.
“A really big concern is that we haven’t really learned enough from this very traumatic, long-lasting disaster of global magnitude,” said Josh Michaud, an associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit research group. Many serious problems persisted during the pandemic, such as a lack of funding for pandemic responses, unfair distribution of tests and vaccines, and poor public reporting. “If we don’t fix those institutions, those processes, there is every reason to believe that we would be heading in the same direction in a future pandemic,” he says.
In the US, new cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all on a downward trend, according to facts from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So are cases and deaths in the EU. But when the US ends the emergency on May 11, the CDC will stop tracking transmission levels in the community and instead track overall hospitalization and death rates. The emergency declaration required the provision of local data, which has now lapsed.
And with less data, it will be more difficult to track down new variants, which in turn will complicate the puzzle of updating vaccines to provide the most protection, although wastewater monitoring and genomic monitoring will continue in some areas. Should new variants come into circulation and Covid-19 roar again in the fall, less data will be available. Home testing has always left gaps in national statistics and viral genetic sequencing efforts, said Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. But now, he says, “we’re flying blind.”
The shift will also make it more challenging for public health officials to indicate how serious a risk a future variant might be. “The ‘it’s over, we’ve won’ messages make us feel like a huge betrayal of trust when another variation emerges,” said Sam Scarpino, a professor of health sciences and computer science at Northeastern University. Without that trust, it will be difficult to get significant public support for getting updated vaccines or returning to masking or social distancing. Only 17 percent of people in the U.S. received the bivalent booster shot last year, according to the CDCand only 14 percent of people in the EU have their third booster.