New York, NY, USA – June 2, 2022: An Infinity testing services pop-up COVID-19 testing site. (Shutterstock)
Written By: Linda Nwoke
Many people wonder if the COVID pandemic is over, and with news of the new variant, how bad things can get. Experts addressed some of these issues during a meeting organized by Ethnic Media Services.
COVID remains a lingering problem three years after it was declared a pandemic. Experts say COVID remains the third leading cause of death since 2020, and only the misinformed will consider it is over. While there appears to be a decline in the number of other respiratory illness cases, such as RSV and Influenzas, the incidence of COVID keeps rising, driven by the evolving new variants.
The new virus variant remains infectious with multiple problems as the vaccination rate dwindles. The current Bivalent vaccine can only provide some form of protection against the new variant. In addition, the Federal Advisory Committee on vaccines has also remained silent on how to manage the new development. According to Dr. Ben Newman, who serves as the Chief Virologist of the Global Health Research Complex Texas A&M, “The WHO committee that chooses vaccine strains and makes recommendations have not released anything in the past seven months, and they had not made any announcement on the new variant in the past two months when it was a very different situation.”
Based on the need for more individual and administrative responsiveness, some experts believe there has been some laid-back attitude toward managing the virus. The result is the rapid spread of the virus within a short time across six countries. At the moment, medical institutions are managing the rise. Yet, there is concern that the situation might worsen if not addressed. There is a concern that the vaccines must be updated to handle the changing scenario; unfortunately, it appears delayed.
“So, while we may have achieved herd immunity against the early strains from 2020, we’re still vaccinating against those strains that appear to be declining,” says Dr. Newman. Yet, the problem can be solved collectively by people getting an updated booster, while placing a travel restriction to prevent perceived transmission of the virus across continents won’t solve the problem. They believe that the virus spreads rapidly without travel.
Despite the prolonged existence of the virus, experts appear undecided on whether it can be described as an endemic problem because they believe the active engagement of stakeholders can manage it. “Endemic implies a certain hopelessness, an unsolvable problem, no matter how hard we try. But this is the third-ranking cause of death in the US, but it is the most preventable, and I accept that others may differ,” explained Dr. Newman.
The Importance of Continuing Receiving Vaccines and Treatment
Dr. Oliver Brooks, the Los Angeles Chief Medical Officer at Health Care, emphasizes the importance of testing for the virus as the new variants defy the existing vaccines and attack immunity.
“It is crucial that you get tested because when you get tested, you go into isolation. That still has not changed,” says Dr. Brooke. He also reiterated the importance of getting their second booster despite its efficacy against the new variant. “However, the vaccine is effective and safe, and there is no reason not to get vaccinated. You still get vaccinated if the vaccine has a 10% response rate. There’s a 90% response rate in terms of the immune response against the vaccine, against the virus,” he explained.
The expert warned against the dangers of complacency and hesitation towards getting a vaccine. “People have become complacent. They are not taking COVID-19 seriously. COVID dropped the life expectancy in the US in 2020 by one year, and it’s the first time in 20 years that the life expectancy dropped,” he warned.
Regarding treatment, Dr. Brooks explained that Paxlovid remains the primary drug for treating severe disease and works against many sub-variants. He explained that the goal of the vaccines was to prevent patients from going to the ER, getting hospitalized, or dying. Generally, to prevent people from getting to the stage of hospitalization. “As for those 65 and older, or those with an underlying condition like diabetes, chronic lung disease, chronic kidney disease, solid organ transplant, obesity, they are the people that need to get Paxlovid,” says Dr. Brooke.
Unfortunately, a study by Kaiser Health News showed that Black African Americans had a lower rate of receiving essential treatments like COVID intervention which emphasizes the direct effect of institutional racism on outcomes in health care.
Jill Rosenthal, another panelist, supported the position by explaining that there is also a disproportionate impact of COVID on vulnerable groups. “There’s data that shows rates of self-reported long COVID are more common among people who are female, transgender, Hispanic, and those without a high school degree,” she explained.
There is the belief that there might be no cure for long-term COVID. Experts, therefore, recommend that people should try to avoid getting COVID and, if contracted, seek an evaluation and treatment. “The first thing is being vaccinated. Then, wear a mask and wash your hands. After that, take zinc, vitamin D, and Vitamin C, known as an antiviral,” says Dr. Brooke. The media is encouraged to promote vaccine confidence and convenience and address the effect of vaccine complacency.
Commercialization of COVID Response and Possible Effect
Given the unpredictability of COVID, there is a growing concern over the possible impact on the cost of COVID when the public health emergency response ends alongside free COVID testing and treatment. Jill Rosenthal of the Center for American Progress explained that there had been no additional funding since April 2022, after the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act in March 2021. The lack of funds has resulted in the absence of future tests, treatments, and vaccines, the inability to continue tracking the disease, and an uncertain future. She revealed that the funding to cover testing, provider fees for vaccinations, and treatment through the uninsured program ended in March.
“And this means that some community members don’t receive testing in places where the clinics can’t sustain the cost to administer the tests,” says Ms. Rosenthal. Additionally, there is a possibility of commercialization of the COVID response, where consumers will pay for the costs of tests and treatments, threatening access for low-income and uninsured people because of the Affordable Care Act’s preventive services coverage standards.
She explained that the COVID vaccine might remain accessible to individuals with public and private insurance even after the public health emergency has expired. However, uninsured people “can be charged part or the full amount of the vaccine, which will be $100 to $130 per dose.” They envisage an access barrier as the shift to commercialization unfolds, ending continuous coverage protection for people on Medicaid.
“And I think that this really raises access and equity concerns. We had mostly closed the gap in vaccine disparities. Still, the data from November shows that the rate of white people who have received the Bivalent booster was twice that of eligible Black and Hispanic people and nearly twice as high for Other Pacific Islander people and Native Hawaiian,” she explained.
Given the developments, she encouraged individuals to get vaccinated to protect themselves. According to her, “People vaccinated with the falling booster had more than 18 times lower risk of dying from COVID than unvaccinated people. And they also had a three times lower risk of infection,” she explained.
Therefore, despite the challenges posed by the new variants, it is critically important that people get vaccinated for protection. Many of these discoveries require additional research funding, which will also lead to the development of new vaccines and continue to track the disease to know the prevalence rates.
“We need to continue to support research into long COVID, and we need to continue to support global vaccination efforts. “In addition to all the other medical recommendations for managing COVID, she suggested improving one’s ventilation and air filtration. And so, this is important for all respiratory illnesses. And federal money is coming to states and communities for use. For instance, in schools, we can keep our schools open and ensure we can keep people safe or at least make it less likely that diseases spread the way they do,” says Ms. Rosenthal.