In its latest assessment of the pandemic, the World Health Organization said global COVID-19 cases fell for the third consecutive week, with deaths falling to levels seen early in the pandemic.
But at a news briefing today, WHO officials urged countries not to let their guard down, with a few sites reporting spikes, and some — like the United States — seeing early signs of new spikes.
Citing concerns about an increase in the case, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today extended the mask order for public transportation by two weeks.
Global cases, deaths both decrease
In its latest weekly update on the pandemic, the World Health Organization said cases fell by 24% last week compared to the previous week, with all regions reporting declines.
Of the nearly 7 million cases reported last week, the top five reported were South Korea, Germany, France, Vietnam and Italy. Deaths are down 18%, with the largest number reported from the United States.
Of the virus samples that were sequenced within the past 30 days, 99.2% were of the Omicron variant. Among the Omicron subvariants, the WHO said it is monitoring BA.4 and BA.5, which contain mutations that may contribute to immune escape. She said that both have leaks of the S gene, which helps distinguish them from the more common BA.2 and is useful for tracking spread. The two subvariables have been detected in a few countries, and work is underway to evaluate them.
In today’s WHO briefing, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has a Ph.D., said some countries are still seeing dangerous spikes in cases, putting pressure on hospitals. He warned that the ability to track COVID-19 trends is at risk as countries reduce testing for the virus.
A call to strengthen response plans
In a related development, the WHO’s COVID-19 Emergency Committee met for the 11th time earlier this week to review the latest developments and to adjust its interim recommendations.
Emergency committees usually meet every 3 months or more, as needed. The last meeting of the group was in mid-January.
At today’s briefing, the World Health Organization said the Emergency Committee concluded that the COVID-19 situation still warrants a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), with experts adding one new recommendation and modifying its previous advice. In the new recommendation, the group urged countries to strengthen their national response to COVID-19 with updated preparedness and response plans based on the different ways the pandemic might behave as set out in the WHO’s latest response plan.
On the emergency committee’s assessments, Tedros said one take-home message is that countries should not let their guard down, and now is the time to work even harder to save lives. He added that the focus should be on equal access, not only to vaccines, but also treatments and testing.
“Diagnosing high-risk patients early enough for new antiviral drugs to be effective is essential and must be available to everyone, everywhere,” Tedros said.
In other global developments:
- With cases on the rise in China, particularly in Shanghai, President Xi Jinping said today that the country must press its strict measures to control and prevent COVID-19, according to Reuters. The shutdowns and other measures have led to supply chain problems and remain a burden on the economies of China and the world. Today, China reported 27,920 new cases, of which 26,420 were asymptomatic. Shanghai accounted for 79% of asymptomatic cases and 95% of asymptomatic cases.
- Italy’s National Health Institute estimated today that vaccination against the COVID-19 virus has halved the number of deaths in the country. A study conducted from January 2021 through January 2022 indicated that vaccination prevented 150,000 deaths and 8 million diseases during that period. The researchers also said vaccination prevented 500,000 people from being hospitalized and more than 55,000 being admitted to the intensive care unit.
CDC Extends Travel Mask Requisition
The CDC said today that masks will remain required on planes and trains for an additional two weeks, as the nation faces a slight increase in cases caused by variant BA.2. CDC Nowcast estimates that BA.2 now accounts for 85.9% of new US COVID-19 cases.
The federal mask for planes and trains was due to expire on April 18, but has been extended until May 3.
In a media statement, the CDC said, “The CDC mask order remains in place while the CDC assesses the potential impact of the high incidence of severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and the health care system capacity. TSA [Transportation Security Administration] It will extend security guidance and emergency adjustment for 15 days.”
Also today, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) announced that it is working to renew the Health Travel Notice system for international destinations starting April 18.
Now, Level 4 for COVID-19 will only be released in countries with a “rapidly escalating case trajectory or extremely high case number, emergence of a new worrying variable, or collapse of healthcare infrastructure.”
“With this new configuration, travelers will have a more actionable alert when they do not travel to a particular destination (Level 4), regardless of vaccination status, so that we have a clearer understanding of the COVID-19 situation at that destination,” the CDC said.
The United States reported 27,853 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday and 561 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker. The average daily new infections over 7 days were 31,276, with 516 daily deaths, according to Washington Post Keep track of.
Stephanie Socheri, CIDRAP News Correspondent, contributed to this article.