This month, the World Health Organization (WHO) released startling new estimates of the death toll due to COVID-19, both from direct and indirect causes. Between 1 January 2020 and 31 December 2021, WHO’s models indicate that approximately 14.9 million people have died due to the pandemic. This is a stark increase from the 6 million deaths previously reported.
“These sobering data not only point to the impact of the pandemic but also to the need for all countries to invest in more resilient health systems that can sustain essential health services during crises, including stronger health information systems,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.
This news comes as countries and societies around the world reopen, with many questioning whether the pandemic is, in fact, over (or if it can be yet considered endemic). According to Dr Farley Cleghorn, Epidemiologist and Palladium Chief Medical Officer, we’re not quite there. “Everyone wants to get past the pandemic, but in the United States, we’re in the middle of a big increase in cases,” he says.
Vaccinations are Critical
“But what’s different now as opposed to past surges, is that the background has changed. We have high vaccination and boosted levels as well as access to the therapeutics that shorten the duration of symptoms,” he explains. This means that while cases may be on the rise, the death rate is far lower in some parts of the world, which indicates that mitigation efforts are working and that the variant that’s currently spreading has fewer ‘clinical symptoms.’
So, what’s the harm in saying the pandemic is over?
Despite the slowing death rate, he warns that we’re a way off from considering COVID-19 as endemic. “We need three factors to consider endemicity; seasonality, predictability, and preparation, and we don’t have any of those yet,” Cleghorn continues. “The variants we’re seeing right now are completely unpredictable, we don’t know what it will take to get to predictability and because of that, we cannot properly prepare beyond our current mitigation measures.”
Those mitigation measures – masking and vaccinating – will continue to be critical in the coming months as Cleghorn recommends integrating COVID-19 control into normal life, since he doesn’t expect to see any more major lockdowns.
“Besides China, which is taking a COVID intolerant policy, most countries have reopened and are finding ways to prevent the spread. We’re now in the third year of this pandemic, we’ve all learned from it and have the opportunity to better equip and protect ourselves.”
As the WHO has laid out, COVID-19 deaths were grossly underreported and underestimated around the world, which not only indicated that many countries need to improve their reporting systems, but that the impacts and ramifications of the pandemic will be felt for a long time to come. “In addition, continued viral transmission would result in many short-term spikes and potentially more dangerous variants,” adds Cleghorn. By letting the virus spread unchecked, he explains, it increases the risk of mutations, causing unpredictability, another hitch in getting to endemicity.
All Pandemics End
All pandemics will end eventually, he notes, but how long it will take this one is unclear.
“The pandemic has had myriad affects, the most severe and easy to verify is death, and the WHO has shown that it was more than 2.5 times more severe than the current stats say in almost every country in the world.” He adds that what appeared to make the difference between a high level of unrecorded deaths and a lower level was the capacity of the public health system and social factors such as trust in government.
“It’s incumbent upon us to reduce that awful burden by continuing to mitigate through masking and updating vaccinations,” he adds. “Until COVID-19 is seasonal, predictable, and can be prepared for, we won’t know what the future holds.”
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