W.Va. COVID Czar: What’s next at the end of the COVID-19 global health emergency?

By Clay B. Marsh, WVU Chancellor and Executive Dean and West Virginia’s COVID-19 czar

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The World Health Organization this week removed its designation for COVID-19 as a “global health emergency.”

The United States is due to follow suit on Thursday, May 11, canceling the designation of COVID-19 as a public health emergency in the U.S.

Where does that leave COVID-19, and what do the end of these designations actually mean?

While the designation of health emergency has been removed from COVID-19, it does not mean that the infection has stopped being a significant cause of acute illness and in special populations, is still life-threatening. We also know that COVID-19 infection can cause long-term problems and is responsible for long COVID, which can impact any system in our body.

Current research shows that staying current with recommended vaccination reduces the risk of long COVID, as does taking the oral anti-viral paxlovid and/or the drug metformin, if one tests positive for COVID-19. We know that people of all adult ages gain protection from long COVID through these strategies, and if you test positive for COVID-19, you should discuss these options with your primary care physician.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control have both recommended that if you are over 65 years old and are 4 months or more from your last Omicron COVID shot, you should consider another shot. In addition, if you are immunocompromised, then you will benefit from another shot as soon as 2 months after your last shot. To determine if you are due for a COVID shot, please visit our vaccine calculator at vaccinate.wv.gov and follow the instructions. You can even schedule your vaccine directly from the calculator if you qualify.

Even with the end of the healthcare emergency status, COVID-19 is still a highly infectious virus that spreads primarily by airborne transmission and continues to mutate, as evidenced by the continuing appearances of more powerful COVID variants. The most recent variants are from the Omicron family.

While the virus has become more powerful, so have our immune systems.

With the production of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, as well as high levels of native immunity for those who have been infected with COVID-19 and recovered, over 90% of the U.S. population has immune protection to COVID-19.

This greater immune protection has led to reduced numbers of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. Today, we see some of the lowest numbers of these two important metrics than we have experienced since the beginning of the Omicron surge (November-December 2021). On average over the past 7 days, about 1,900 people per day are hospitalized, and 190 deaths per day are from COVID-19.

We have also seen a change in the demographics of those that are at the highest risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19. Around 90% of deaths and hospitalizations are from those over 65 years old and from those with conditions that compromise their immune systems.

COVID-19 will remain a significant health issue in WV, our country and the world, even after the “health emergency” declaration is ended.

It is critically important in people 65 years old and older, as well as in people that are immunocompromised at all ages over 6 years old, that you stay up to date with your Omicron COVID-19 shot. In addition, if you become infected with COVID-19, please contact your healthcare provider to see if you qualify for paxlovid and/or metformin, both of which can reduce the risk of long COVID and can reduce the severity of COVID-19 infection.

Also, testing oneself if you have symptoms of cold or fever and staying home if you test positive protects others.

We can still protect ourselves by hand washing, covering our mouth and nose in the crook of our arm when sneezing, or coughing and wearing masks when in crowded indoor environments. Prevention methods that we can practice are smart.

We have learned a lot about COVID-19, and to further ensure our health, we need to continue to practice what we learn.

COVID-19 will remain an infectious disease that will cause illness, hospitalization and death.

But by staying smart and following the guidance of our healthcare providers, we can keep each other safe and stop more preventive deaths from COVID-19.

Pulling the rope together and looking out for each other.

— Clay B. Marsh, MD, leads the academic health sciences center of West Virginia University — including five schools — Dentistry, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy and Public Health — and numerous allied health programs and clinical operations around the state. Clay is also serving as West Virginia’s COVID-19 czar.

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