COVID-19, the virus that shut down the world and claimed nearly 7 million lives over the past three years, is no longer classified as an “international health emergency” but rather an “established an ongoing health issue,” the World Health Organization said in a statement on Friday.
The International Health Regulations Emergency Committee made its decision during the committee’s fifth meeting since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
This does not mean that the virus is gone, but that the public emergency in the United States is over, according to University of Virginia Health Director of Epidemiology Dr. Costi Sifri, who spoke Friday during a weekly “UVa Health COVID-19 Briefing.”
Sifri said the virus is now in a epidemic phase, meaning it still affects a large number of people within a community, as opposed to a pandemic phase, when a virus affects swaths of people across countries and continents.
“I think, both here in the United States and with the report from this morning, what they acknowledged is that we have clearly entered an epidemic phase of the disease, not to minimize the impact of COVID on patients that continue to have that challenge and we can anticipate that we’ll see it moving forward, but we’re now in a different phase,” Sifri said.
Dr. Reid Adams, associate director of clinical affairs at UVa, said that there are currently four COVID-19 patients at the university’s hospital, one of which is being held in the intensive care unit.
Adams said the hospital has seen a “significant decrease” in COVID patients over the past three to five weeks.
Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that COVID deaths dropped by about 50% in 2022, Sifri expects that the COVID mortality rate will continue trending down this year.
Although the mortality rate is dropping, COVID-19 patients are still dying at a higher rate compared to other common diseases.
“Just to underscore what 244,000 individuals who died of COVID last year, how that compares is about eight- to tenfold higher than the number of people who die of influenza on an average flu season,” Sifri said. “So it’s still a substantial number and, even if it continues to drop here in 2023 and we don’t see significant waves with hospitalizations and deaths, it’s still going to remain a very common cause of morbidity and mortality.”
Sifri said COVID-19 is still largely vaccine preventable.
The CDC and its advisory committee are considering an annual COVID vaccine, like a flu shot, to prevent future outbreaks. The CDC is also considering a second dose of the booster for high-risk individuals and an annual shot for others.
Last month, the University of Virginia Health System updated its masking policy and reverted to its previous visitation policy, citing guidance from its Infection Prevention and Control team.
Now masking is optional in all administrative buildings and locations, including research areas; in ambulatory clinics and outpatient imaging locations; at the orthopedic center on Ivy Road; at outpatient surgery centers; and at the West Complex on Jefferson Park Avenue, except for shared transplant and surgery clinic space and the dialysis center.
Masks are still required at the university’s hospital, the emergency department, transplant clinics, cancer clinics, the infusion center and dialysis centers.
While bedside and overnight visits are permitted with limitations, visitors are no longer required to wear masks during trips to the medical center.