On May 11, 2023, the federal government will end COVID-19 as a public health emergency. The national emergency that began in early 2020 already ended on April 10, 2023.
The reason for this symbolic end to the public health pandemic emergency is that COVID is now under better control than it was a few years ago. Vaccines are available to help people from getting seriously ill as well as treatments that can help curtail COVID complications. There is also fast, convenient testing and there are high-quality masks available to keep the spread low.
One immediate change the end of the public health pandemic emergency will mean is that some of us will find that we may either have to pay or cost share for things we have been getting for free under the emergency.
The type of insurance a person has will determine how much one has to pay. Unfortunately, it will most likely be the lowest income people and the uninsured who are going to face the greatest changes as a result of the end of the public health emergency on May 11.
Even though cases, deaths, and hospitalizations have dropped considerably since the peak of the omicron surge last winter, Americans are still continuing to die each week. The truth is that the virus doesn’t care whether or not there is a public health emergency declaration. It is still important to stay up to date on vaccines, pay attention to symptoms, and test yourself if you are going to be around vulnerable people.
For quite some time now, Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 have been the most common COVID-19 variants in the U.S. The newest family of Omicron subvariants is called XBB or ‘Gryphon.
The ‘Kraken’ or XBB.1.5 is the most transmissible COVID variant yet, though it does not seem to cause more severe disease as was first thought. However, in India, another very similar variant, XBB.1.16 or ‘Arcturus,’ reared its ugly head in March of 2023 and is the next variant to watch.
XBB, first detected in August of 2022 in England, has proven able to evade immunity for people who have had a COVID-19 infection or for those who have received a vaccine. In fact, these new strains of Omicron are the most antibody-evasive strain tested.
A past COVID infection and the vaccines will not have the same level of protection against XBB as they have had with previous strains of COVID. Antibody drugs may also not be very effective. However, the bivalent booster will still likely be protective against severe disease. Paxlovid should afford some protection as well.
The symptoms of the XBB variants seem to be pretty much like COVID in general. One newer symptom noticed in some infected children is conjunctivitis, or red and itchy eyes, a symptom not found with previous COVID infections. However, the loss of the sense of smell and/or taste is now an uncommon symptom.
How these and future variants will affect disease transmission and serious illness, hospitalization, and deaths in the future in the U.S. is yet unknown. There is not enough data available and there are no lab studies completed concerning disease severity, so it may be too early to tell.
It is important not to panic and succumb to fear about COVID-19 and its variants but to stay vigilant. Even though we are all tired of COVID and restrictions, the messages are the same today as they was earlier. If sick, isolate. Test. Avoid large crowds, especially if elderly or immunosuppressed. Wear masks where necessary. Get boosters when available. Follow hand hygiene. Social distance when possible.
Continue to empower yourself with the current scientific data and take recommended necessary precautions depending on your own personal health situation and those of your family members and friends.