WHO ends the global health emergency for COVID-19

As the U.S. gears up to end its federal public health emergency for COVID-19, the World Health Organization just declared an end to the global health emergency. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced the declaration on Friday, following a meeting of the organization’s COVID-19 emergency committee the day before.

Here’s what this declaration means, pulling from Helen Branswell’s article in STAT News and Katelyn Jetelina’s Your Local Epidemiologist post:

  • The world is at a point of transition from considering COVID-19 an unexpected emergency to considering it a part of our daily lives, a disease that we’ll be dealing with in the long term.
  • The WHO will have fewer resources for an international response to COVID-19, such as coordinating between countries and sharing data at a global scale.
  • The WHO will also have less authority when it comes to issuing international guidance to control COVID-19 spread.
  • There will be fewer incentives for countries to accelerate vaccines, treatments, and tests for COVID-19.

The declaration does not mean that COVID-19 is “over.” We have plenty of long-term issues to deal with here: millions suffering from Long COVID, continued COVID-19 waves around the world, potential new variants, healthcare worker shortages, and declines in childhood vaccination rates, to name a few. Tedros may set up a new committee to make recommendations on long-term COVID-19 management, according to Branswell’s article.

In fact, the WHO recently publicized the impacts of Long COVID: Tedros delivered a PSA explaining that one in ten coronavirus infections leads to some form of Long COVID, and suggesting that “hundreds of millions of people will need longer-term care.” Shifting out of the emergency phase of our global COVID-19 response should be a call to action for scientists and health experts to now focus on Long COVID needs.

Still, a lot of people might interpret the WHO’s declaration as an announcement that they no longer need to worry about COVID-19. Some mainstream publications that have covered the change haven’t done a great job of conveying the nuances here, and I’ve already seen some misinterpretation on social media.

COVID-19 may not be an emergency at this point. But we’re probably going to be living with it for the rest of our lives, and there’s a lot of work left to do.

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