The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Not Over

“Anyone who’s telling you that COVID is over is…misinformed, at the very least,” said Texas A&M virologist Dr. Ben Neuman during a Jan. 6 Ethnic Media Services news briefing. (Screenshot captured by Julia Métraux / The CC Pulse)

By Julia Métraux

With the new year, unfortunately comes more COVID-19. A new subvariant of omicron, which is spreading across the United States, is the most transmissible version so far, according to the World Health Organization.

At an Ethnic Media Services Jan. 6 briefing, healthcare providers and experts spoke about the new subvariant, XBB.1.5, and the ongoing risk COVID-19 poses to people across the United States, especially those who are at a higher risk of complications or do not have regular access to healthcare.

“Anyone who’s telling you that COVID is over is…misinformed, at the very least,” said Dr. Ben Neuman, chief virologist of the Global Health Research Complex at Texas A&M University.

All experts spoke about the importance of continuing to get COVID-19 vaccines and boosters and tests, which will likely become more and more expensive to get.

“We are in a winter surge, and this is at the same time that we are unwinding federal payment for COVID vaccines, tests and treatments,” said Jill Rosenthal, director of public health policy at the Center for American Progress.

>>>Read: Doctors Urge Testing and Treatment as COVID Surges Again

In response to the surge, the United States government is requiring people traveling from China to have a negative COVID-19 test before they enter the U.S. Some experts, including Neuman, are critical of this step, in part, because there are a lack of safety measures within the U.S. and because of the risk of increasing xenophobia against Chinese people.

“From a virologist point of view, I think travel bans are mostly a political or PR tool, rather than something that’s really effective against the virus,” Neuman said.

Despite some people “getting tired” of COVID-19, the COVID-19 pandemic is not done.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 is the third leading cause of death in the United States after heart disease and cancer. Long COVID, a post-infectious syndrome, is also drastically affecting people’s quality of life, leading to millions of people leaving the workforce.

“People have become complacent. They’re not taking COVID-19 seriously,” said Dr. Oliver Brooks, chief medical officer at Watts Healthcare. “COVID dropped the life expectancy in the U.S. in 2020 by one year.” Among Black people, he said it “dropped by two years.”

Some COVID-19 outcome disparities may become even more prominent when Paxlovid, an antiviral used to treat COVID-19, will hit the private market around mid-2023, according to Kaiser Health News.

Rosenthal noted that “Congress has not met the [Biden] administration’s requests for additional COVID funding.” Rosenthal said she is concerned that an absence of or minimal funding for COVID-19 responses will lead to low-income people not being able to get tested for COVID-19, as they may not be able to afford the fees for tests.

“Consumers are going to have to pick up the costs of treatments and tests, in particular, and this threatens access for low-income and uninsured people,” Rosenthal said.

Sophia Tan, a research data scientist at University of California, San Francisco, also spoke about the results of a study a UCSF-UC Berkeley team recently published. The study, published in the Nature Medicine journal, found that COVID-19 vaccination reduced the risk of a COVID-19 breakthrough from the omicron strain. The researchers found that “more recent vaccination led to greater reductions in infectiousness.” 

“We also see that there’s added benefit to having the vaccination, even though you’ve had prior infection, will further reduce your infectiousness,” Tan said. “We also saw that there’s additional benefits from having additional doses of vaccine and also having more recent vaccination.”

When asked what the speakers hoped people attending the briefing took away, Rosenthal emphasized the importance of vaccinations and limiting exposure.

“​​It’s critically important to continue to get vaccinated and do the things that help protect us from COVID,” Rosenthal said.

Brooks also asked what type of wake-up call Americans would need to stop continuing to be complacent against the spread of COVID-19.

“Do we need another million people to die?” Brooks said. “ Before we stop being complacent?”

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