An announcement Friday from the World Health Organization is part milestone in the battle against COVID-19 and part acceptance of a new reality.
WHO officials announced that the virus no longer constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, with Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus saying, “It is time to transition to long-term management of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
That decision was based on declining global numbers of hospitalizations, intensive care unit admissions and deaths attributed to the virus. “This trend has allowed most countries to return to life as we knew it . . . ” Tedros said. “Yesterday, the emergency committee met for the 15th time and recommended to me that I declare an end to the public health emergency of international concern. I have accepted that advice.”
The decision has little practical impact. In the United States, a vast majority of people long ago returned to life as they knew it. Masks in public are rare, and COVID no longer dictates public policy and dominates news reports. In January, White House officials announced that they would end the U.S. public health emergency on May 11 — this week.
But the World Health Organization announcement has some symbolic meaning as the crisis is reduced from the highest threat level. And it also allows for an assessment of where communities in Washington stand in relation to the disease.
In numbers released Thursday, Clark County Public Health reported that COVID activity and hospitalizations had decreased over the previous seven days, continuing what generally has been a steady decline. Two COVID-related deaths were reported, bringing the county’s total to 1,101 since the arrival of the virus in 2020.
Statewide, more than 1.9 million cases of COVID have been recorded in the past three years. That certainly is an undercount, with many cases going unreported to health officials as infected people endure the illness at home. Nearly 16,000 deaths in the state have been attributed to the virus.
On both counts, Washington has fared better than most regions. Since the beginning of the outbreak, our state has ranked among the 10 best per-capita in avoiding infections and deaths. It is a poignant commentary on the impact of the disease that 16,000 deaths earn a passing grade.
The Age of COVID has exposed and exacerbated divisions in American politics and society. While we can understand arguments about the effectiveness of masks and vaccines – even when we disagree with critics – the unfounded rejection of science has been disturbing and will be a lingering detriment to our nation.
Far too many people have echoed the opinions of scientists who have questionable credibility and represent a small minority of the scientific community. Hearing a doctor spout unconventional views on a podcast should not carry the same weight as the consensus of the medical community. No, injecting bleach is not a wise way to prevent COVID, regardless of who suggests it.
As much as those divisions have impacted our response to COVID, it causes concern about the next public health crisis.
For now, however, Americans have learned to live with COVID, accepting it as a fact of life. As proof that the virus is still with us, we mention that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has launched a probe after 35 attendees at a CDC conference recently contracted COVID.
Such is the new reality, which remains unchanged no matter what the World Health Organization says about COVID-19.