The World Health Organization’s declaration of the end of COVID-19 as a global health emergency is an “important milestone,” say health officials in British Columbia, but they warned the virus will still be around for the foreseeable future.
Minister of Health Adrian Dix and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry say in a joint statement that COVID-19 is no longer causing severe disease in most people.
They attribute the “high level of population immunity” to vaccination and the combination of boosters and infection.
The statement says the province has been transitioning out of the emergency phase of the pandemic for a while.
It says B.C. has been integrating COVID-19 surveillance, monitoring, processes and supports into its regular health system operations.
Vaccination requirements for health-care system workers remain in place and the statement says the government will continue monitoring to ensure its public health response protects those most vulnerable to infection.
“COVID-19 is another respiratory illness we must pay attention to and use the tools we have learned. We encourage everyone to take appropriate measures to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19,” the statement says.
It goes on to encourage British Columbians to continue safe hygiene practices learned over the pandemic, such as:
- getting vaccinated and staying up to date on boosters
- staying at home if you feel sick and staying away from people at higher risk of serious illness if you have symptoms
- wearing a mask if you have respiratory symptoms, or are recovering from a respiratory illness, and you are around others, especially people at higher risk of serious illness
- practicing good respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene like covering your mouth when you cough and frequently washing your hands
It comes after Canada’s health minister stated that despite the ending of the global emergency, COVID-19 is still with us and still a threat.
Jean-Yves Duclos said WHO’s declaration is a good sign but COVID-19 still must be taken seriously and its lasting impact on our health care system is still playing out.
“This is the end of an emergency, this is not the end of the threat,” he said, speaking to reporters at the Liberal policy convention in Ottawa. “COVID-19 is still with us.”
Duclos said about 60,000 Canadians have died of COVID-19, and there are still people dying from it, though in much lower numbers than before.
Health Canada’s COVID-19 dashboard reported that during the seven days ending May 2, 84 people in Canada died of COVID-19. In the early months of the pandemic the weekly death total exceeded 1,300 in May 2020.
Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Alberta, said in an email that if the message people receive is that “it’s all over,” there is a risk they forget the threat the virus poses to older people and those with additional risks.
“The other lesson to hold on to is that thoughtfully using precautions can also reduce risk of other nuisance illnesses, and potentially severe illnesses,” she added.
Canada stopped testing widely for COVID-19 when the Omicron variant hit in December 2021, because the number of cases far exceeded capacity to test everyone.
The widespread availability of rapid tests for use at home also means that fewer people are getting tested in the health-care system.
Duclos said the system is still recovering, noting the number of workers who left the sector largely due to burnout. Long-term care is also a system in need of serious improvements, he said.
The WHO declared the novel coronavirus an international crisis on March 11, 2020.
On Friday in Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the pandemic had been on a downward trend for more than a year, acknowledging that most countries have already returned to life before COVID-19.
“It’s with great hope that I declare COVID-19 over as a global health emergency,” he said.
“That does not mean COVID-19 is over as a global health threat,” he said, warning that new variants could yet emerge.
Tedros noted that while the official COVID-19 death toll was 7 million, the real figure was estimated to be at least 20 million.
He bemoaned the damage that COVID-19 had done to the global community, saying the pandemic had shattered businesses, exacerbated political divisions, led to the spread of misinformation and plunged millions into poverty.
Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief, said it was incumbent on heads of states and other leaders to negotiate a wide-ranging pandemic treaty to decide how future health threats should be faced.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2023.
— With files from Nicole Ireland and The Associated Press.