Three years into the pandemic: ‘As 2022 draws to a close, we still have many reasons for hope’

By: - December 23, 2022 7:00 am

Coronavirus COVID-19 computer-generated image. The virus has continued to mutate. Credit: Getty Images

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot has changed in three years: public safety measures have dwindled, fewer people wear face masks, the more transmissible omicron variant and subvariants swept the nation in 2022, triggering an uptick in infections, and COVID test kits were widely distributed to homes, with less testing at mobile sites.

Overall, the pandemic isn’t over, and residents in Florida and across the country should adhere to safety guidelines to fight potential surges, according to health experts as well as global health officials.

“It’s still out there. And as we see the other viruses start to come back, like RSV (a respiratory virus) and flu, pretty soon we will probably start seeing seasonal coronaviruses come back,” said Dr. Michael Teng, associate professor of medicine at the University of South Florida and an epidemiologist.

A surgical mask and a KN95 mask at a pharmacy.  Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

“It’s very important to try to protect yourselves as best as possible. Currently, that means get boosters, masks and just be smart about your exposure risk.”

In Florida, COVID-19 cases have been climbing over the past few weeks during the holiday season. Just last week, the state had reported more than 22,500 new cases, according to data from the Florida Department of Health.

‘Uncertainties and gaps’

During a virtual press conference Wednesday, World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made remarks about the status of the pandemic but warned that it hasn’t ended.

“And yet, as 2022 draws to a close, we still have many reasons for hope,” he said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has declined significantly this year.”

Ghebreyesus added: “Certainly, we are in a much better place with the pandemic than we were a year ago, when we were in the early stages of the Omicron wave, with rapidly increasing cases and deaths. But since the peak at the end of January, the number of weekly reported COVID-19 deaths has dropped almost 90 percent. However, there are still too many uncertainties and gaps for us to say the pandemic is over.”

He continued: “Gaps in surveillance, testing and sequencing mean we do not understand well enough how the virus is changing; Gaps in vaccination mean that millions of people – especially health workers and older people – remain at high-risk of severe disease and death; Gaps in treatment mean people are dying needlessly.”

‘More immune-evasive’ subvariants

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and WHO have been tracking more concerning subvariants in the omicron family, including BQ.1, B.Q. 1.1 and XBB.

Dr. Teng, of USF, warned that those subvariants are “more immune-evasive.” WHO also noted that XBB “is the most antibody-evasive” COVID variant to date. That could mean current vaccines may not be as effective against the subvariant.

CDC data show that XBB made up about 7 percent of new coronavirus infections across the nation during the weekly reporting period that ended on Saturday.

“The issue is it’s more likely that you are going to get infected. But the vaccine still provides good protection against hospitalizations and severe disease,” Teng said. “Yet part of it is the problem that people who are most vulnerable haven’t gotten boosted in a while.”

At-home testing

At-home COVID testing. Credit: Diane Rado

The Biden administration is offering free at-home COVID-19 rapid tests from the federal government, citing that cases of coronavirus, flu and RSV are on the rise due to the holidays.

The federal program will allow for four free COVID-19 tests.

An updated bivalent booster was approved by federal health officials earlier in the year but not many people have gotten it. In fact, only 44.2 million Americans got the booster, according to data from the CDC.

“The uptick of the more recent booster is pretty low,” Teng said. “It’s a problem because it’s more likely that they’re going to get infected. The elderly population is especially at risk.”

“We are starting to see that the disease has shifted back towards the elderly like we saw earlier in the pandemic,” Teng added.

Going after vaccine-related crimes?

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference in Orlando on June 3, 2022. FL Surgeon General Joe Ladapo stands behind him. Credit: Screenshot/Florida Channel

Gov. Ron DeSantis got a COVID vaccine — the single shot of Johnson & Johnson — in April 2021, according to the Florida Phoenix, but it was not clear if he got a booster shot afterwards.

Nearly two years later, the governor held a recent roundtable discussion featuring a panel of researchers, scientists and physicians who were all skeptical about COVID shots. Florida’s Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo was part of the panel.

Earlier, Ladapo had issued new guidance in October recommending “against males aged 18 to 39 from receiving mRNA COVID-19 vaccines.”

DeSantis formed a statewide public health committee to push back against federal public health guidance and petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to launch a statewide grand jury to investigate vaccine-related crimes.

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the statewide grand jury to investigate crimes and wrongdoing related to COVID-19 vaccines, including pharmaceutical manufacturers and their executive officers.

The order stated that “a statewide grand jury shall be promptly impaneled for a term of twelve calendar months.”

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Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan

Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.