April 11, 2023 – The 30-second commercial, part of the government’s We Can Do This campaign, shows everyday people going about their lives, then reminds them that, “Because COVID is still out there and so are you,” it might be time to update your vaccine.
But in real life, the message that COVID-19 is still a major concern is muffled if not absent for many. Many data tracking sources, both federal and others, are no longer reporting, as often, the number of COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in February stopped updating its public COVID data site, instead directing all queries to the CDC, which itself has been updating only weekly instead of daily since last year.
Nongovernmental sources, such as John Hopkins University, stopped reporting pandemic data in March, The New York Times also ended its COVID data-gathering project last month, stating that “the comprehensive real-time reporting that The Times has prioritized is no longer possible.” It will rely on reporting weekly CDC data moving forward.
Along with the tracking sites, masking and social distancing mandates have mostly disappeared. President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan bill on Monday that ended the national emergency for COVID. While some programs will stay in place for now, such as free vaccines, treatments, and tests, that too will go away when the federal public health emergency expires on May 11. The HHS already has issued its transition roadmap.
Many Americans, meanwhile, are still on the fence about the pandemic. A Gallup poll from March shows that about half of the American public says it’s over, and about half disagree.
Are we closing up shop on COVID-19 too soon, or is it time? Not surprisingly, experts don’t agree. Some say the pandemic is now endemic – which broadly means the virus and its patterns are predictable and steady in designated regions – and that it’s critical to catch up on health needs neglected during the pandemic, such as screenings and other vaccinations
But others don’t think it’s reached that stage yet, saying that we are letting our guard down too soon and we can’t be blind to the possibility of another strong variant – or pandemic – emerging. Surveillance must continue, not decline, and be improved.
Time to Move On?
In its transition roadmap released in February, the HHS notes that daily COVID reported cases are down over 90%, compared to the peak of the Omicron surge at the end of January 2022; deaths have declined by over 80%; and new hospitalizations due to COVID have dropped by nearly 80%.
It is time to move on, said Ali Mokdad, PhD, a professor and chief strategy officer of population health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
“Many people were delaying a lot of medical care, because they were afraid” during COVID’s height, he said, explaining that elective surgeries were postponed, prenatal care went down, as did screenings for blood pressure and diabetes.
His institute was tracking COVID projections every week but stopped in December.
As for emerging variants, “we haven’t seen a variant that scares us since Omicron” in November 2021, said Mokdad, who agrees that COVID is endemic now. The subvariants that followed it are very similar, and the current vaccines are working.
“We can move on, but we cannot drop the ball on keeping an eye on the genetic sequencing of the virus,” he said. That will enable quick identification of new variants.
If a worrisome new variant does surface, Mokdad said, certain locations and resources will be able to gear up quickly, while others won’t be as fast, but overall the U.S. is in a much better position now.
Amesh Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, also believes the pandemic phase is behind us
“This can’t be an emergency in perpetuity,” he said “Just because something is not a pandemic [anymore] does not mean that all activities related to it cease.”
COVID is highly unlikely to overwhelm hospitals again, and that was the main reason for the emergency declaration, he said.
“It’s not all or none — collapsing COVID-related [monitoring] activities into the routine monitoring that is done for other infectious disease should be seen as an achievement in taming the virus,” he said.
Not Endemic Yet
Closing up shop too early could mean we are blindsided, said Rajendram Rajnarayanan, PhD, an assistant dean of research and associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.
Already, he said, large labs have closed or scaled down as testing demand has declined, and many centers that offered community testing have also closed. Plus, home test results are often not reported.
Continued monitoring is key, he said. “You have to maintain a base level of sequencing for new variants,” he said. “Right now, the variant that is ‘top dog’ in the world is XBB.1.16.”
That’s an Omicron subvariant that the World Health Organization is currently keeping its eye on, according to a media briefing on March 29. There are about 800 sequences of it from 22 countries, mostly India, and it’s been in circulation a few months.
Rajnarayanan said he’s not overly worried about this variant, but surveillance must continue. His own breakdown of XBB.1.16 found the subvariant in 27 countries, including the U.S., as of April 10.
Ideally, Rajnarayanan would suggest four areas to keep focusing on, moving forward:
- Active, random surveillance for new variants, especially in hot spots
- Hospital surveillance and surveillance of long-term care, especially in congregate settings where people can more easily spread the virus
- Travelers’ surveillance, now at seven U.S. airports, according to the CDC
- Surveillance of animals such as mink and deer, because these animals can not only pick up the virus, but the virus can mutate in the animals, which could then transmit it back to people
With less testing, baseline surveillance for new variants has declined. The other three surveillance areas need improvement, too, he said, as the reporting is often delayed.
Continued surveillance is crucial, agreed Katelyn Jetelina, PhD, an epidemiologist and data scientist who publishes a newsletter, Your Local Epidemiologist, updating developments in COVID and other pressing health issues.
“It’s a bit ironic to have a date for the end of a public health emergency; viruses don’t care about calendars,” said Jetelina, who is also director of population health analytics for the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. “COVID-19 is still going to be here, it’s still going to mutate,” she said, and still cause grief for those affected. “I’m most concerned about our ability to track the virus. It’s not clear what surveillance we will still have in the states and around the globe.”
For surveillance, she calls wastewater monitoring “the lowest-hanging fruit.” That’s because it “is not based on bias testing and has the potential to help with other outbreaks, too.” Hospitalization data is also essential, she said, as that information is the basis for public health decisions on updated vaccines and other protective measures.
While Jetelina is hopeful that COVID will someday be universally viewed as endemic, with predictable seasonal patterns, “I don’t think we are there yet. We still need to approach this virus with humility; that’s at least what I will continue to do.”
Rajnarayanan agreed that the pandemic has not yet reached endemic phase, though the situation is much improved. “Our vaccines are still protecting us from severe disease and hospitalization, and [the antiviral drug] Paxlovid is a great tool that works.”
While some data tracking has been eliminated, not all has, or will be. The CDC, as mentioned, continues to post cases, deaths, and a daily average of new hospital admissions weekly. The World Health Organization’s dashboard tracks deaths, cases, and vaccine doses globally.
In March, the WHO updated its working definitions and tracking system for SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern and variants of interest, with goals of evaluating the sublineages independently and to classify new variants more clearly when that’s needed.
Still, WHO is considering ending its declaration of COVID as a public health emergency of international concern sometime this year.
Some public companies are staying vigilant. The drugstore chain Walgreens said it plans to maintain its COVID-19 Index, which launched in January 2022.
“Data regarding spread of variants is important to our understanding of viral transmission and, as new variants emerge, it will be critical to continue to track this information quickly to predict which communities are most at risk,” Anita Patel, PharmD, vice president of pharmacy services development for Walgreens, said in a statement.
The data also reinforces the importance of vaccinations and testing in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19, she said.