The emergency phase of Covid-19 is over, at least in official terms. The World Health Organization declared the global Covid health emergency over last week, and the United States will end its federal Covid public health emergency on Thursday. These announcements come a year after the European Union decided to end its declaration of emergency.
As global and national officials roll back the widespread data tracking, intergovernmental coordination and testing programs that were critical to the emergency phase of the pandemic, the move raises questions about what has been learned from this fight. three years, as well as the vulnerabilities that could be exposed if a severe new variant of Covid – or an entirely new pathogen – emerges.
“A very big concern is that we haven’t really learned enough from this very traumatic and protracted disaster that was global in scope,” says Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a group of non-profit research. Many serious problems have persisted throughout the pandemic, such as lack of funding for pandemic responses, inequitable distribution of tests and vaccines, and poor quality public messaging. “If we don’t fix these institutions, these processes, there’s every reason to believe we’ll be down a similar path in a future pandemic,” he says.
In the US, new cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all trending down, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This also applies to cases and deaths in the EU. But when the United States ends its emergency on May 11, the CDC will stop tracking community transmission levels and instead track overall hospitalization and death rates. The emergency declaration required local data to be provided, and that will now expire.
And with less data, it will be more difficult to track new variants, which will complicate the puzzle of updating vaccines to provide the best protection, although in some areas sewage monitoring and surveillance genomics will continue. If new variants start circulating and bring Covid-19 back in the fall, there will be less data available. Home testing has always left gaps in national statistics and viral genetic sequencing efforts, says 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.”
This change will also make it more difficult for public health officials to convey the seriousness of the risk that a future variant could pose. “The message around ‘it’s over, we’ve won’ sets us up for a huge betrayal of trust if there’s another variant that pops up,” says Sam Scarpino, professor of health sciences and computer science at Northeastern University. Without this trust, it will be difficult to gain meaningful public buy-in to taking updated vaccines or returning to masking or social distancing. According to the CDC, only 17% of people in the United States received the bivalent booster last year, and only 14% of people in the EU received their third booster.