December 1, 2023

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Reaction to WHO declaring COVID no longer an emergency

Infectious disease experts in Canada have mixed reactions to the World Health Organization declaring COVID no longer an emergency, saying the conversations around prevention and treatment of the disease are still necessary.

The WHO made the declaration Friday, a statement health-care professionals widely anticipated.

The recent news from the United Nations health agency represents a step toward ending the pandemic, which has seen the deaths of 52,037 Canadians and infection of millions.

The WHO’s emergency committee first declared COVID-19 an emergency on Jan. 20, 2020. A statement at the time described it as a health threat, and prompted co-operation between nations.

While Friday’s announcement marks an end to more than three years of the designation, it “does not mean COVID-19 is over as a global health threat,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said at a news conference Friday.

The WHO still considers COVID-19 to be in its pandemic phase, one that is marked by a disease’s exponential growth rate, which is still the case in many countries across the world.

In Canada, some experts have said COVID is transitioning into the endemic stage, which is when a disease is consistently present but not as widespread.

Experts in the health-care field anticipated the move from the WHO as cases across Canada and parts of the world decreased in the last year.

“It’s not entirely a surprise,” Dr. Christopher Labos, epidemiologist and cardiologist, told CTV News Channel Friday. “I think most of us expected this was going to happen.”

In January, the WHO’s emergency committee met to decide whether COVID should still be considered an emergency and, due to rising cases in some countries, ultimately kept the designation.

Although this status has now changed, experts still believe a degree of caution is needed.

“The question becomes: how do you still address the fact that it’s still important? There is still a disease that is circulating. It is now, unfortunately, endemic — a lot of people are getting sick, it’s having a massive impact on the health of populations,” Labos said. “So how do you make that sort of subtle nuance between the work: maybe not an emergency, but still important?”

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist, told CTV News Channel there are “mixed emotions” around the announcement, saying there is a rationale for lifting the emergency, but that he worries this could lead to a lack of action to prevent its resurgence.

“I think it’s a point to reflect…This has had a tremendous impact not just on health but, of course, (on the) mental health and well-being of so many people around the world,” Bogoch said. “COVID is still here even though this is no longer a public health emergency of international concern. It’s not going away. And we’re going to be contending with waxing and waning virus for an indefinite period of time.”

Labos worries the different medical titles for COVID-19 could lead to some people believing the pandemic is over, potentially backtracking on some of the gains made during the last three years in regard to ventilation, vaccines and testing.

“These are still issues that need to be addressed,” he said. “And these are hard issues because it’s expensive to upgrade infrastructure. and these discussions still need to happen.”

Bogoch echoed sentiments on continuing upgrades to infrastructure, adding those with underlying health conditions are still being disproportionately impacted.

Another focus he said needs to continue is testing.

“It’s been very challenging because we have scaled back a lot of the testing that has been done,” Bogoch said. “Data is very important, it’s also important to contextualize the data and interpret it, and then have data-driven and sound responses.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, offered her reaction to the WHO’s announcement in an interview with CTV News Channel on Friday.

“I think today is an important milestone to mark on a global level where there’s a transitioning from an emergency crisis to one of ongoing management of COVID-19, because this virus—the SARS-COV-2 virus—is here to stay in the human population for the foreseeable future,” Tam said.

Tam says although the virus is still circulating and mutating, the country has not seen over the past six to eight months “the big up-and-down waves” that it saw near the start of the pandemic.

She adds hospitalizations, deaths and ICU admissions caused by COVID-19 are stabilizing in Canada.

“We have to remain vigilant, this is still a significant challenge, particularly for those with high-risk medical conditions or who are seniors,” she said.

Tam went on to say Canada will continue to monitor COVID-19 and will prepare for the fall, as well as for any future vaccination recommendations. She says Canada needs to strengthen its health-care system, not only to combat COVID-19 but for any other possible health concerns that may arise.

With files from CTV News Digital Writer/Producer Joey Chini and The Canadian Press