Yesterday marked three years since the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, but the virus is still spreading and more than 759 million cases have been reported worldwide, resulting in nearly 7 million deaths, according to the WHO, while many experts have said the numbers are an underestimation.
More than 10 million people in Taiwan have had the virus, and more than 18,400 people have died due to COVID-19. Several Omicron subvariants of SARS-CoV-2 are still spreading, causing about 10,000 new cases per day in the past week.
Although COVID-19 is here to stay and new variants might emerge anywhere in the world, most people have resumed their normal lives. Taiwan has lifted most of its virus restrictions, including dropping the indoor mask mandate last month and removing mandatory self-isolation for mild cases starting on Monday next week.
The WHO on Jan. 30 said that the pandemic continues to constitute a public health emergency of international concern, and thousands of people are dying from COVID-19 every month. Some experts have warned that the virus is still dangerous and should not be ignored, as hospitalizations and deaths have not subsided.
Many experts agree that while remaining vigilant, people should not feel terrified to continue their normal lives, and people should assess and mitigate risks based on their personal situation.
Although victory against the virus still cannot be claimed, the world has seen great advances in science — from having no understanding and no immunity against the virus, to having vaccines and antiviral drugs developed with unprecedented speed. Immunity due to vaccines and past infection allows most people to live without enforced restrictions and strict precautions.
However, many studies show that protection from natural and vaccine-induced immunity wanes, and vaccination makes a big difference for people at high risk of developing severe COVID-19. Health authorities recommend that people continue to get vaccinated, and that members of high-risk groups wear a mask in public places.
The Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) launched a policy this month suggesting that people get at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine each year, and for people aged six months or above who have not received the Omicron BA.4/BA.5 bivalent booster this year to do so.
Preliminary studies suggest that people aged 65 or above who received a bivalent mRNA booster vaccine reduce their risk of hospitalization by 84 percent, compared with unvaccinated people the same age, the CECC said, citing a report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CECC also cited statistics showing that 46 percent of COVID-19-related deaths in Taiwan since last year were unvaccinated people, while less than 6 percent of the population is unvaccinated.
The government should continue to fight against vaccine hesitancy and find effective ways to encourage vaccine uptake, especially among the about 1.3 million unvaccinated people. It should increase surveillance of the virus, as it could still evolve rapidly.
There have been calls from health experts for coordinated research on “long COVID,” as studies have estimated that it occurs in 10 to 20 percent of all cases. As the CECC has said that more than half of the population has contracted COVID-19, the government should also shift some of its attention and resources to understanding, preventing and providing treatment for long COVID.
While the CECC is preparing to wrap up its operations fighting acute COVID-19, and move toward monitoring it like the seasonal flu, the government should collate lessons from the past three years and continue to build a resilient health system that is better prepared for pandemics.
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