The World Health Organization and the Biden administration say COVID-19 remains a public health emergency, even as global deaths from the virus have hit their lowest levels since March 2020.
Both the WHO and the US Department of Health and Human Services first declared COVID-19 a public health emergency in January 2020. More than two years later, the pandemic situation has improved, but global health experts believe that the virus is still a major health threat.
More needs to be done before the WHO can revoke that designation, the organization’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday during a news conference.
“Some countries are still witnessing severe spikes in cases, putting pressure on hospitals. And our ability to monitor trends is compromised as testing is greatly reduced,” he said.
Under a public health emergency declaration issued by the WHO, a committee dedicated to dealing with the virus was formed. They were given the power to form official health recommendations to prevent the further spread of the disease.
This COVID-19 emergency committee will decide when to lift the emergency declaration. It is unclear when that might happen, but the group will take into account the level of international efforts to contain the virus, as well as data on infection rates, to decide when to end the global health emergency.
Globally, 22,336 deaths from COVID-19 were recorded last week, according to WHO data. This is the lowest number since the week of March 30, 2020.
Tedros said this decision by the WHO’s emergency committee on COVID-19 stems from the still high rate of infection in some areas of Europe and China.
He said that COVID is still evolving to new strains that remain a cause for concern.
“This virus has become more transmissible over time and remains deadly, especially for the unprotected and unvaccinated, who lack access to health care and antivirals,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Tuesday the 90-day extension of its own, separate public health emergency declaration for COVID-19.
This allows federal funding to be used for tests, vaccines and certain treatments for people covered by the Medicare and Medicaid health insurance programs. Private insurers also had to cover all costs related to COVID tests and vaccines, thanks to emergency public health funding. This will change once the health claim is removed in the US
The Biden administration on Wednesday also announced an extension of the national face mask requirement on public transportation for another 15 days after it expired. Travelers will still need to wear masks at airports, on planes, buses, trains and in transit centers until at least May 3.
The decision was made in response to the increasing prevalence of the omicron subvariant in the US. The nation is seeing a rise in the 7-day moving average of cases.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will maintain that mandate “to assess the potential impact of the surge in cases on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and health system capacity,” according to an agency spokesman.
The U.S. averages about 29,000 reported new cases of COVID and 452 new deaths daily, according to the CDC.