Where Are We At With The COVID-19 Pandemic Today?

Where Are We At With The COVID-19 Pandemic Today?

According to the WHO, there are more than 380.6 million confirmed cases of people with COVID-19 around the globe, and more than 5.6 million people have died from the disease.

(While some news sources report different numbers, the WHO provides official counts of confirmed cases once a day.)

The CDC provides a rough picture of the outbreak in the U.S. here, currently putting the total confirmed and probable cases at more than 75 million and estimating more than 884,800 deaths. 

The Impact Of COVID-19

COVID-19 upended daily life in the United States as SARS-CoV-2, the virus spreading the disease, caused surges in infections.

While many countries and territories in the region are on track to reach 70% coverage for COVID-19 vaccines, 21 have yet to reach half their populations. 

Vaccine coverage for other childhood diseases has also fallen further behind.

If you mapped the number of COVID-19 cases over time, the expectation was that it would peak at some point—on a graph, this peak would mirror a surge in patients (which could overwhelm hospitals and health care providers).

Flattening the curve would mean fewer patients during that period, and hospitals would be better able to manage the demands of sick patients with COVID-19 and other illnesses.

PAHO

While much progress has been achieved over the past year, the Americas region has stubbornly remained the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

PAHO launched its COVID-19 Response Strategy and Donor Appeal 2021 to sustain and scale-up the response to the COVID‑19 pandemic in the Americas, suppress the virus’s community transmission, and mitigate the effects.

As the specialized health agency for the Americas and the Regional Office of the World Health Organization, PAHO is providing essential leadership, coordination, and assistance to fight the spread of COVID-19, save lives, and protect the most vulnerable population groups -including health workers- in all 50 states and territories of the region.

Getting Vaccinated

But many more remain at risk until they get vaccinated, and experts are still tracking the emergence of virus variants that could pose new threats.

All adults are eligible to be vaccinated, as well as teenagers, and children as young as five for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

In the U.S., three vaccines are being administered (from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) endorses a clinical preference for the Pfizer and Moderna shots, based on the latest evidence of vaccine effectiveness, safety, and rare adverse events.

If enough people are protected either because they have had the disease or they’ve been vaccinated, herd immunity will start to protect even those who have not been infected. 

As a result, today, most Americans have the protection of a vaccine – with 215 million Americans fully vaccinated, and an estimated two-thirds of eligible adults having received their booster shot.

Vaccinated and boosted people are 41x less like to die of COVID-19 than unvaccinated individuals. And America’s unprecedented vaccination campaign has saved lives.

A December 2021 estimate suggested vaccines saved over 1 million American lives and successfully prevented over 10 million deaths.

When we refer to herd-immunity timelines for a country, we mean the point at which the entire nation or a significant portion reaches herd immunity.

This progress was enabled by rapid vaccine rollout, with most Western European countries and Canada overcoming their slower starts during the first quarter of 2021 and passing the United States in the share of the fully immunized population.

While the timeline for herd (or population) immunity is still uncertain, researchers believe we will likely not reach it soon. 

And experts are concerned that outbreaks of the Omicron variant could affect overall progress.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will continue to monitor the efficacy and durability of currently authorized vaccines against current and future variants and make recommendations to optimize protection.

Vaccines For Children

The CDC says everyone ages 12 and older should also get a booster shot.

Suppose the FDA authorizes and the CDC recommends a vaccine for children under five years of age. 

In that case, the United States is prepared to immediately distribute vaccines through a network of thousands of pediatricians’ offices.

The Impact On Weakened Immune Systems

A weakened immune system can make you more likely to develop severe illness from COVID-19.

For this reason, some adults and children with immunocompromising conditions may be advised to get a third dose of Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna to complete their primary series (this is not to be confused with the booster dose, which is additional).

According to the CDC, reported COVID-19 illnesses have ranged from mild (with no reported symptoms in some cases) to severe to requiring hospitalization, intensive care, and/or a ventilator. COVID-19 illnesses can also lead to death.

While people of all ages can be infected, the risk for complications increases with age.

People living in a nursing home or long-term care facility, and people of all ages with underlying health conditions (such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, and obesity) also are at high risk for serious illness.

COVID-19 also has led to serious illness and even death in younger and middle-aged adults who are otherwise healthy.

While most children have mild or no symptoms, some have gotten severely ill. Even if children have no symptoms, they can spread the virus to others as with adults.

The decline in the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines over time and the benefits of booster doses have become much better understood over the past three months.

While an initial course of all WHO-approved vaccines provides strong protection against severe illness and death, breakthrough cases increase as time passes, indicating that protection declines with time.

For example, a July 2021 study of the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine in Israel showed that in every age group studied, those who had been vaccinated by January 2021 were more likely to experience breakthrough infection than those who completed their initial course of vaccination two months later were.

Impact On Traveling

The White House announced that vaccines would be required for international travelers coming into the United States, with an effective date of Nov. 8, 2021.

For entry into the United States, vaccines accepted will include FDA-approved or authorized and WHO Emergency Use Listing vaccines.

You can participate in many activities that you did before the pandemic. 

Still, CDC recommendations advise wearing a mask indoors in public to maximize protection from the Delta and Omicron variants if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission.

Proof of a recent negative test result will no longer be required, though some travelers may still be randomly chosen to be tested on arrival.

Research On Vaccine Options

Health care providers and state and local health departments determine who should be tested. Meanwhile, scientists continue to study the virus closely.

In addition to the vaccines now available in the U.S. and other countries, multiple vaccines are being studied.

Non-vaccinated Impact On Pregnant Women

In August, the CDC urged pregnant people to get vaccinated.

Pregnant people are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 compared to those who aren’t pregnant, as well as for increased risk for preterm birth (delivering the baby earlier than 37 weeks), and possibly other poor pregnancy outcomes, according to the CDC.

Vaccine Donations

Over the last year, the Biden Administration pioneered the model to donate and deliver surplus vaccines to the rest of the world.

America was the first country to announce the purchase of doses solely for donation to other countries; the first country to give up our place in line for vaccines – allowing the African Union to immediately start receiving up to 110 million doses of Moderna at a reduced rate negotiated by the United States; and the first country to negotiate a deal to send vaccines directly to humanitarian settings.

The path forward in the pandemic will require doubling down on our commitment to helping vaccinate the globe and saving lives by making tests, treatments, and PPE widely available.

Global Vaccine Access

The U.S. government will increase investment in the Global Vaccine Access (Global VAX) initiative, an ambitious global vaccination initiative to get doses into arms by working with partner countries to implement their plans more quickly.

This includes supporting efforts such as jumpstarting communications campaigns, providing and supporting vaccinators on the front lines, purchasing cold chain supplies and syringes, paying for shipping and logistics to expedite vaccine delivery to hard-to-reach areas, ensuring people at high risk of hospitalization and deaths like the elderly and immunocompromised are vaccinated, and building vaccine confidence on the ground.

Expanded global shots-in-arms efforts will require additional funding from Congress.

A Fourth Vaccine

A fourth dose may be needed to protect against severe illness among certain groups, such as older adults, though scientists say it’s still too early to tell.

State Of The Union Address

The president spoke about the war in Ukraine, the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, and more in his State of the Union speech.

Biden will Focus on the economy and the global response to Russia. The speech was originally centered primarily on the president’s domestic agenda.

But the war in Europe has forced the White House to change gears.

Mask Mandates

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated its framework for recommendations on preventive measures like masking, so masks are recommended when and where they matter the most. 

Americans will be wearing masks less often.

“Make no mistake, as America moves forward, we will leave no one behind.”

By monitoring community risk, masks can be worn when the risk of severe disease in the community is high and taken off when the risk is low.

Overall, it means Americans will be wearing masks less because so many people are protected from severe disease.

More details about prevention for people who have been vaccinated can be found on the CDC website.

Keep about six feet between yourself and others. The CDC advises avoiding nonessential indoor spaces and crowded outdoor settings. A mask is not a substitute for social distancing.

Use a household wipe or spray to disinfect doorknobs, light switches, desks, keyboards, sinks, toilets, cell phones, among other objects you touch daily.

Masks In Schools

The CDC has updated the guidance for fully vaccinated people.

The CDC has also recommended universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

However, local rules may vary, and fully vaccinated people must follow local business and workplace guidance, and take precautions as directed in health care settings.

They must still wear masks on buses, trains, planes, and other forms of public transportation, and in the U.S.

The Antiviral Drug

Companies that have produced vaccines are looking at whether they might need to tweak them to better protect against new mutations of the virus, as scientists continue to study how those mutations affect the rate of contagion and their potential for causing severe disease.

Doctors are also refining their approaches to treating COVID-19.

The antiviral drug remdesivir, is the first and only drug to receive full FDA approval for patients ages 12 and older after some evidence showed it could reduce the number of days spent in the hospital.

Battling The Variants

The FDA has developed new approaches to accelerate the authorization of a vaccine or treatment that targets any new variant while maintaining strict and longstanding practices to ensure the safety and efficacy of the products.

The Administration has developed a variant playbook to rapidly assess the disease severity and transmissibility of a new variant and expedite the rapid laboratory evaluation of the effectiveness of vaccines, tests, and treatments against any variant.

The United States has experienced five waves of the pandemic since 2020, including three in the past year driven by new variants.

When new variants are identified, the federal government has a network of federal, academic, and commercial researchers who can study the sequence and assess mutations rapidly, allowing the government to respond quickly to concerning variants.

The Delta Variant

The Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, also called B1.617.2, emerged in late 2020 and has since spread rapidly worldwide.

It first caused major waves of disease in India and the United Kingdom and more recently triggered serious outbreaks in many other countries.

America experienced a wave of COVID-19 cases driven by the Alpha variant in early spring 2021 – when the U.S. vaccination program was administering a record number of vaccines every day.

The Delta variant was more than twice as contagious as the original coronavirus strain, then swept across the country starting in Summer 2021, beginning in the South and spreading to the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions.

The Omicron Variant

Omicron represented another step in the virus’s evolution, and has been one of the most contagious viruses in history, causing record numbers of infections around the world over the past three months.

However, because of both the lower severity of the Omicron variant and a stronger level of population immunity from vaccinations, Omicron has caused relatively fewer cases of severe COVID-19.

Now that the highly contagious Omicron is the dominant variant in the U.S., worry continues, and the CDC has kept stronger guidelines for wearing masks for prevention.

Scientists and public health officials continue to work as quickly as possible to find more answers to key questions about how the disease affects the body and why some cases are more severe than others, and identify the best treatments for COVID-19.

The emergence of Omicron led to tighter rules around travel in many countries, with some, such as England, also restricting domestic travel.

Compared to prior waves of COVID-19 in the United States, the Omicron wave has had a lower proportion of cases resulting in hospitalization or death.

America has weathered the current Omicron wave with minimal disruption – schools and businesses largely remained open.

Whether because Omicron is more infectious or has a greater ability to evade the immune system, it quickly became the dominant variant in South Africa.

If the experience of South Africa were to be repeated elsewhere, we could see a continued rapid increase in the number of COVID-19 cases as Omicron is established.

The question of disease severity is more complicated. Several clinicians in South Africa have noted the mild presentation of Omicron cases.

While we don’t yet know the full extent of waning immunity for Omicron, new evidence indicates that those who have received three doses of vaccine may benefit from medium-term protection.

Upcoming Funds

America is committed to establishing a new health security financial intermediary fund at the World Bank in 2022. 

It will call on all countries and public and private organizations to commit to urgent action to assist in the global COVID-19 response.

COVID-19’s Impact On Mental Health

The pandemic has been stressful for everyone, which can severely impact mental health

If you, or someone you care about, are feeling overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression, or anxiety, or feel like you want to harm yourself or others, call 911, or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746. (TTY 1-800-846-8517).

The Bigger Picture

By and large, the six-month outlook in many countries is brighter than in the past two years.

But several uncertainties could temper the optimism, starting with the duration of immunity.

The extraordinary progress we’ve already seen—in just over two years, four strains in succession have become globally dominant—makes it dangerous to plan on a “no new variant” scenario.

But it is possible that evolution will not produce epidemiologically significant new variants.

The risk of new variants emerging is related to the number of cases globally, since each infected individual represents a new opportunity for viral evolution.

Evidence suggests that natural and vaccine-induced immunity wane over time, particularly against infection.

Data shows that more and more people have concluded that the health risks of COVID-19 are not significant enough for them to change their behavior, either because of their vaccination status, their youth, or a desire to move on from the pandemic.

The United Kingdom’s experience nevertheless suggests that once a country has weathered a wave of Delta-driven cases, it may be able to resume the transition toward normalcy.

Beyond that, a more realistic epidemiological endpoint might arrive not when herd immunity is achieved but when COVID-19 can be managed as an endemic disease.

The biggest overall risk would likely be the emergence of a significant new variant.

Since the March installment in this series, many countries, including the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, experienced relief from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Information in this article was accurate at the time of original publication. The CDC recommends the following preventive actions for anyone who has not been vaccinated:

  • Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Dry them thoroughly with an air dryer or clean towel.
  • If soap isn’t available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Stay home if you’re sick.

Because information about COVID-19 changes rapidly, we encourage you to visit the websites of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and your state and local government for the latest information.

Our website services, content, and products are for informational purposes only. The Ross Community Center does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.


Sources: Yale Medicine, Pan American Health Organization, The White House (COVID Plan), The New England Journal of Medicine, The White House (Air Travel Requirements), Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (Pregnancy Guidelines), NBC News, U.S. Food & Drug Administration, Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (Mortality Report), European Dialogue, McKinsey & Company, IN.Gov

Featured Image: CVS Health

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