The World Health Organization’s declaration that the COVID-19 emergency is over is a hopeful milestone after more than three years of pandemic life, but it won’t change much about how Canada tracks and treats a virus that is here to stay, the country’s top public-health official says.
On Friday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, announced that COVID-19 will no longer be considered a public-health emergency of international concern – the WHO’s highest level of alarm.
Dr. Tedros made the decision after receiving a recommendation from the WHO emergency committee that first advised him to declare a public-health emergency back on Jan. 30, 2020, when fewer than 100 cases had been identified outside of China.
WHO officials analyzed recent international COVID data and determined now was the right time to lower the alarm level, he said.
However, Dr. Tedros and Canadian health leaders stressed that COVID is still here and vaccines remain a crucial defence.
“Over all, there’s no significant changes for us,” Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public-health officer, said in an interview Friday after the WHO announcement.
Canada was already transitioning from handling COVID as a crisis to managing it as a continuing public-health concern, she added, a change made possible by the virus settling into a “steady state,” with fewer frightening waves than in the first two years of the pandemic.
“Right now, in terms of monitoring, our surveillance systems are not as intense as before,” Dr. Tam said.
She said COVID would eventually be tracked the way other respiratory illnesses are and measures such as wastewater analysis and watching for emerging variants would continue.
“This is the end of an emergency,” federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said on Friday. “This is not the end of a threat.”
British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix echoed that. “It’s obviously important symbolically,” he said of the WHO decision. “That said, the virus doesn’t listen to our declarations or our press releases. It just lives to spread in new and different variants so we have to continue to take action.”
In Canada, 84 people died of COVID in the week ending May 2, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Deaths and hospital admissions related to COVID have been gradually dropping since January, although both remain at higher-than-ideal levels, PHAC says.
More than 52,000 Canadians are known to have died of COVID since the pandemic began.
In the United States, two COVID-19 emergency declarations are set to expire on May 11. The end of the public-health emergency south of the border has a host of practical implications, including the lifting of proof-of-vaccination requirements for Canadians and other non-American citizens travelling to the U.S.
In Canada, public-health restrictions have been removed in a more gradual and piecemeal way, depending on the policies of different levels of government. For example, Ontario relaxed some of its remaining restrictions in nursing homes at the end of March, while British Columbia announced last month that it would end mandatory masking in health-care settings and allow visitors into long-term care homes without proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.
For scientists who have spent the past few years tracking SARS-CoV-2, the end of the international public-health emergency is a moment to celebrate, so long as the world doesn’t let its guard down.
“At this stage, we mustn’t be complacent because continued viral surveillance is still essential given that this virus can still mutate, it can recombine, it can evade vaccine immunity,” said Marc-André Langlois, the executive director of the Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network, a team of Canadian academics who monitor variants.
After the WHO announcement, Dr. Tam sent an e-mail thanking provincial and territorial public-health officers for all they had done since she e-mailed them for the first time about a pneumonia of unknown etiology in China on Jan. 2, 2020. She felt the need for a moment of silence for all the lives lost, as well as a moment of gratitude for the challenges the country has overcome.
“There was no one that worked alone,” Dr. Tam said. “Not just among the chief medical officers but every part of society.”
With a report from Marieke Walsh