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Experts: On anniversary of pandemic declaration, threat of COVID-19 still significant

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Experts: On anniversary of pandemic declaration, threat of COVID-19 still significant
Hospital emergency rooms, like this one at Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital in Los Angeles County, and intensive care units often were overwhelmed in the United States and abroad by the number of COVID-19 patients, File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

March 11 (UPI) -- Friday marks two years since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic due to the ongoing spread of COVID-19, and while much of the United States and Europe appears ready to move on, the virus still poses a significant threat, experts told UPI.

"We can only truly say the pandemic is over when there are no new variants on our radar, when we have a high level of population immunity due to vaccination and/or prior infection and there are no outbreak hotspots," infectious disease specialist Dr. Priya Nori told UPI Thursday during a Zoom call.

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And, even two years in, "we cannot say that right now," said Nori, an associate professor of medicine and of orthopedic surgery at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the Montefiore Health System in New York City.

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Through Thursday, more than 6 million people globally and nearly 1 million people in the United States have died from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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Although key metrics are trending positively, at least in the United States, following the most recent surge in cases and deaths caused by the virus' Omicron variant, "it is too soon to declare victory" over the virus, Nori said.

As a result, while some accused the WHO of being too slow in declaring a pandemic n March 2020, it appears the global agency will be cautious in announcing its formal end, Nori said.

And such an announcement is not likely to be imminent, she said.

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"Pandemics only 'end' in a clean fashion if the pathogen is eradicated," Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, told UPI in an email.

"There is no guarantee there will not be another variant," he said.

Positive trends, troubling numbers

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In the United States on Wednesday, fewer than 32,000 new cases were reported, less than one-fourth of daily totals just one month ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Similarly, over the past week, deaths nationally have fallen below 2,000 per day for the first time since the start of the Omicron surge, agency data shows.

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This latter figure is an improvement over where it had been during the worst of the pandemic -- before the availability of vaccines -- in January 2021, when daily death averages approached 4,000, based on CDC data.

It also is lower than it was at the height of the most recent surge in early February, when daily averages for deaths were above 3,100, the agency reports.

However, just under 1,700 people across the country died from COVID-19 on Wednesday, a figure that should be too high for health professionals -- and human beings -- to simply accept, according to Hanage.

"Personally, I have been dismayed how many people have proved to be unmoved by the loss of so many of their fellow human beings," he said.

"And well over 150,000 deaths have been recorded here since Omicron got going -- of course, that is less than last winter, but it is about five times what you would expect in a normal flu season," Hanage added.

A 'good time' for good times

Still, in light of numbers trending in the right direction -- albeit slowly -- the coming weeks and months might be a good time for people to make their own risk assessments and "do some of the things they have missed over the past two years," though with caution, Einstein's Nori said.

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Those who are fully vaccinated and boosted -- meaning they have received three doses of the vaccines from either Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech -- may want to consider returning to their workplaces, traveling and getting together with friends and family who are at lower risk, she said.

However, those planning to engage in these activities should have contingency plans in place and make sure they have the "tools available" to protect themselves, Nori said.

For example, though many school districts have relaxed mask mandates for students, she recommends that children have a mask with them at all times, in case they find themselves in a situation in which they do not feel safe.

"Every person really has to decide just for themselves" what level of risk they are willing to accept, she said.

To that end, she would like to see the CDC provide specific recommendations for the public that covers a wide variety of potential situations, such as when to begin wearing masks again or when to avoid large, indoor gatherings.

"The 'end of the pandemic phase' [is] defined as much by human behavior as by the [virus] dynamics," Hanage said.

"As behavior changes, we may see many more infections over the summer," he said.

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End game?

For the United States, Hanage cites Florida as a good measuring stick for where the pandemic will head in the near-term.

If cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise as people move indoors during the summer for air conditioning, the same could happen in colder regions when winter hits, he said.

In many parts of the world, though, the worst of the pandemic is far from over, as evidenced by the fact that more than 10 million new cases have been reported globally over the past week alone, according to Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19.

"And we know this is an underestimate because testing rates have declined dramatically around the world," Van Kerkhove said during a press conference Wednesday.

"The virus is still spreading at far too intense of a level three years into this pandemic so even though we are seeing declining trends ... this is something we have to remain vigilant for," she said.

If that sounds like the WHO is not ready to make any positive declarations regarding the pandemic, there is a reason for that, Einstein's Nori said.

Such an announcement likely will not come until the majority of the populations of low- and middle-income countries worldwide have been fully vaccinated and there are no new outbreaks, she said.

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Given that regions of Asia have seen recent upticks in cases, as has England, the latter fueled by the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron, she does not expect an announcement soon.

Here in the United States, where nearly two-thirds of the eligible population has been fully vaccinated, but less than one-third has received a booster dose, the possibility that widespread immunity against the virus will wane in the coming months means it is a case of "when there is another surge, not if," Nori said.

As a result, "we are going to need to be prepared to ramp up steps like masking and social distancing as needed, because there are going to be highs and lows as we move forward and this cycle may continue for some time," she said.

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