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COVID-19 pandemic continues as emergency eases, experts say

President Joe Biden last week said the pandemic is over, but health experts from the World Health Organization to the University of Virginia Medical Center say it’s not that simple.

“We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it, but the pandemic is over,” Biden declared during a televised episode of 60 Minutes on Sept. 18.

But in the famous words of Yogi Berra, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.

“Are we at the end of the pandemic? It’s something we’ve all been asking ourselves and clearly it’s been a topic of discussion,” said Dr. Costi Sifri, director of hospital epidemiology at UVa Health, during a Friday virtual conference with area press.

“We are in a much different place now than we were. Schools are open. People are going to restaurants. Worksites are back to full force in most places,” Sifri said. “In that fashion, and for those individuals, the pandemic has receded.”

Sifri said that it may soon be time to back off the emergency efforts put forward immediately after the SARS-CoV-2 virus was discovered and began its worldwide spread. That, however, does mean the virus is gone.

“In my mind, the pandemic isn’t over. But for the emergency response to the pandemic, we may be closing in on that finish line,” Sifri said. “The virus hasn’t left us. There are still a lot of infections and unfortunately there are still a fair number of deaths. 400 deaths per day is significant. COVID is still a top-five cause of death.”

International health officials agree.

“We have spent 2-1/2 years in a long, dark tunnel and we are just beginning to glimpse the light at the end of that tunnel,” World Health Organization Director-Gen. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a Thursday press briefing.

“But it is still a long way off and the tunnel is still dark with many obstacles that could trip us up if we don’t take care,” he said. “We all need hope that we can – and we will – get to the end of the tunnel and put the pandemic behind us. But we’re not there yet.”

Even Biden backed off his original statement. On Sept. 19, he told supports that the pandemic may not be over, but said that “it isn’t where it was.”

White House officials said there are no plans to lift the declared public health emergency, which has been in place since January 2020 and is currently extended through Oct. 13.

Sifri said the idea of the pandemic being at its end may have less impact on the virus than on the political nature of the pandemic response.

“Some of the questions raised about this are more of a political nature,” he said. “What does this mean in terms of funding for new, second-generation vaccines; for further research into COVID; for developing the infrastructure that we need to be able to track this virus and understand what’s happening and to be able to deploy our countermeasures?”

Sifri said some are concerned that saying the pandemic is over means the need to respond is also over.

“One of the potential consequences of saying the finish line has been crossed is that we pack up the bags and go home and don’t think about what could be coming around the corner or coming down the line,” he said.

Sifri said masks, vaccines and social distancing, efforts that have been used to limit the spread of the virus, are still important steps to follow.

He said exactly how current COVID variants will impact the population come fall and winter is unknown, but he said impacts are expected as is a surge of sorts.

“What the size of that surge is and what and what its impact is are less clear,” he said.


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