(The Dallas Examiner) – “We are in a very different place with COVID,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University School of Public Health and former White House COVID response coordinator, said during a recent webinar.
Cases are far lower than at the height of the pandemic. Hospitalizations are slowing for the first time in two months, and there are declines in the amount of the virus detected in wastewater. Despite this, public health officials caution that it’s too early to declare victory.
Recently, the USC Annenberg Center of Health Journalism hosted a webinar – The New Wave of COVID: A Conversation with Dr. Ashish Jha, which discussed the current state of COVID-19 and its impact on vulnerable populations. Jha, who led the development of treatments and access to newly formed vaccines, testing and surveillance, and helped design infrastructure to respond to current and future disease outbreaks, led the discussion. The event was facilitated by Fenit Nirappil, health and science reporter for The Washington Post.
The current state of COVID: The end of public health emergency
“The emergency phase of this pandemic was officially declared over. We are in a new normal where we will see increases in the virus, decreases in the virus. We’re going to see two to three waves of infections,” Jha said.
The summer wave of COVID-19 cases peaked and is now declining. However, the number of COVID-19 infections may increase with the winter months approaching.
Data shows that the risk of hospitalization or death is exceedingly low for older Americans if they are up to date on their vaccines and receive treatment when infected with the virus. Evidence has shown that most immune-compromised individuals benefit a substantial amount from vaccination.
“If you are not updated on your vaccines. If you’re not getting treatment, coronavirus continues to pose a substantial challenge, especially if you’re at an elevated risk,” Jha explained.
The prevalence of long COVID is hard to estimate because of the different definitions. Between 3% and 6% of Americans suffer from long COVID, with the majority of those being people who were infected early in the pandemic and continue to suffer.
“There is no question that long COVID is a problem,” Jha stated.
The risk of developing long COVID, which Jha referred to as “new long COVID,” is relatively low and can be made much lower by remaining up to date on vaccines. The risk of long COVID is not zero. The only way to avoid long COVID is not to get infected.
“The risk of long COVID has declined quite substantially over time, and we got to start looking at risks as they are today and not conflating it with risks as they were in 2020 or 2021,” he said.
Based on conducted studies, the risk of developing long COVID is 1%. The risk of developing debilitating long COVID is 0.2%. Data has shown that long COVID is more likely to occur in older adults and that keeping up to date with vaccinations reduces the risk of developing long COVID by 30% to 50%.
“We are at a point of where I don’t think of COVID as a singular risk, but I look at COVID as part of a broad set of risks of respiratory viruses that every winter, it’s probably going to kill between 80,000 to 100,000 elderly and medically vulnerable Americans unless we can really drive up vaccinations and treatments,” Jha said, “That is an unacceptable level of suffering and death, and we need to be doing something about that.
Despite the low risk of developing long COVID, Jha said that more progress is needed.
“Even though I said the risk of developing long COVID has gotten much lower, we still have many, many millions of Americans suffering from long COVID, and we’ve got to find new treatments.”
Access to COVID vaccines
Last year, according to Jha, congress took a stance to no longer fund vaccine treatments, and because of this, vaccines and treatments shifted to the commercial system. Due to America’s complicated health care system, the amount of different health insurance companies and pharmacies, and complicated rules surrounding the health care system, the switch to the commercial system has not been smooth. Insurance complications and delays have plagued the rollout.
“When you’re forced to switch from the government as the single purchaser buying all these things to a commercial system where you literally have hundreds of purchasers, middlemen, pharmacy benefits management companies, etc., it is going to be a little bumpy in a country as complex as ours.”
Jha emphasized that although there have been complications in the rollout of vaccines to the commercial system, the supply of vaccines is plentiful.
Last, he addressed Republican officials contradicting the Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on the COVID vaccine.
“I find some of the guidance coming out of the Florida health officials disappointing. That’s because the CDC goes through a very comprehensive, transparent process,” Jha said, “You don’t have to agree with their conclusions, but you have to deal with the data that they are sharing. And I think if you’re a public health official, a public health expert who wants to disagree with the CDC, which everybody is more than welcome to do, the responsible way to do that is to show better data or to show that the data analysis is wrong. And what we have seen from the Florida Department of Health is proclamations largely without data, and that really troubles me.”