Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19 — March 16, 2022

“Shared expectations lead to predictability.”

496. Ambulance wait times are as long as a day in Hong Kong.

         Q:  Is the surge in Omicron variant cases diminishing worldwide?

         A:  Europe and the U.S. have nearly recovered from the surge attributed to the Omicron variant, but this is not the same around the world.  Hong Kong’s hospitals, doctors and nurses are stretched thin from a recent massive surge in Covid-19 cases.  One-third of its ambulance workers have tested positive for the coronavirus or are quarantining because they were in close contact with positive cases. That’s nearly 1,000 employees, said Saphine Yip at the Fire Services Department.  The longest wait time for an ambulance was a day and 15 hours, she said.  Officials are battling the city’s worst coronavirus outbreak, with 56,827 cases reported last Thursday. The city has recorded 1,153 deaths since the Omicron variant began to spread in January, and a majority of deaths have been among the older people who are not vaccinated.

For much of the pandemic, Hong Kong avoided huge outbreaks by employing tough border controls and social distancing rules. For the better part of the past two years, officials recorded single- or double-digit daily cases, and most of those were considered imported cases from travelers who had recently arrived in Hong Kong and were still in quarantine.

497.  Australia is also considering its “new normal” by lifting Covid restrictions. 

         Q:  Are  other countries accepting the new normal of only preventing hospitalizations? 

         AAustralia, in the Southern Hemisphere, now facing the winter season, is considering relaxing its pandemic rules, including quarantine requirements for close contacts of people who test positive for the coronavirus.  The country is shifting from trying to prevent transmission entirely to protecting those at risk of severe illness, health officials said two weeks ago Friday.  About Covid-19, “It’s not over, and there will inevitably be new variants, and there will inevitably be a level of virus within the community going forward,” Greg Hunt, the country’s health minister, told reporters in Australia. He also urged people to get booster shots as the country continues its vaccination campaign.

The considerations come after Australia had been facing its largest outbreak since the pandemic began. The country was reporting an average of 29,422 new daily cases according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.  However, the average number of deaths has declined over the past two weeks.  This was probably influenced by 94 percent of the population over age 16 having received a second dose and nearly two-thirds of eligible people having received a booster.

498. Public health policy has officially changed in combating Covid-19

         Q: Why aren’t masks and other methods part of protecting the community any longer?

         A:  As cases across the country plummet, more states are lifting mask mandates — and schools are following suit.   New York City officially announced the end of its school mask mandate for children over 5 years old last week. Also, Maryland, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York State, and Connecticut ended mask requirements, and by mid-March, they will also be gone in California, Oregon, Washington State, and New Jersey.  In part, this move has political roots.  People do not like being told what to do.  Politicians find this an attractive target to organize their reelection campaigns around, and recent court decisions banning mask mandates force other politicians to consider dropping their arguments promoting masks.  The fact that the prevalence of infections in schools is dropping also encourages removing mandates. This political and cultural momentum has caused leaders to accept that Covid-19 cannot be eliminated.  From this, there is the tendancy to shift from preventing infections to, instead, preventing serious disease, hospitalizations, and deaths.

499. Switching from prevention to controlling Covid-19 alters public health practices.

         Q:  How do we reduce the number of new infections if we don’t include wearing masks?

         A:  A recent article in The Atlantic stated – “And just like that, the national attitude on COVID is flipping like a light switch. As the United States descends the bumpy back end of the Omicron wave, governors and mayors up and down the coasts are extinguishing indoor mask mandates and pulling back proof-of-vaccination protocols. In many parts of the country, restaurants, bars, gyms, and movie theaters are operating at pre-pandemic capacity, not a face covering to be seen; even grade schools and universities have started to relax testing and isolation rules. These policy pivots mirror a turn in public resolve: Two years into the pandemic, many Americans are ready to declare the crisis chapter of COVID-19 over, and move on.”

The article continued, we’ve been at similar junctures before—at the end of the very first surgeagain in the pre-Delta downslope. Each time, the virus has come roaring back. It is not done with us. Which means that we cannot be done with it. What’s up ahead is not COVID’s end, but the start of our control phase, in which we invest in measures to shrink the virus’s burden to a more manageable size. “This is the larger, longer game we’re having to think about,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, stated. But, the article continues, we must reinvent public health because our present system does not have the tools needed to control a disease. Public health has tools to prevent diseases.  After a detailed analysis of what is needed, the conclusion is reached that if a new infectious disease or a variant emerges, it will be difficult to control unless and until its rapid spread can first be prevented.  Installation of required ventilation systems at all indoor venues is one answer that illustrates the cost it will take to reinvent public health.

500. The seven habits of the most Covid-resistant countries.

         Q:  How come some countries have fewer Covid cases and deaths than we do?

         A:  Uri Friedman, the managing editor at the Atlantic Council, recently wrote an article published in The Atlantic identifying the seven habits of Covid-resistant nations.  South Korea, New Zealand, and the Nordic countries have fared better resisting the effects of Covid-19.  Below are the broad lessons that other countries could learn from.

  1. Learn from past shocks to prepare for the next crisis.

In 2015, an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), also caused by a coronavirus, gave confidence in applying ways to prevent the virus from spiraling out of control. Other countries without this experience were either panicking or complacent.

  1. Channel scientific and other expert advice into policy and strategy.

As Sridhar, the public-health expert, has argued, Korea’s short-term focus on “maximum suppression helped buy time for scientists” to gain control early.

  1. Follow the data in real-time.

Rapid responses depend on governments responding decisively to fluid realities. That, in turn, requires a commitment to know and follow current data.

  1. Communicate clearly and transparently with the public.

New Zealand has been the world’s brightest star for crisis communications during the pandemic.  South Korea consistently conveyed a coherent strategy to its people.

  1. Cultivate public trust in government and fellow citizens.

Scholars have discovered correlations between countries’ resilience to COVID-19 and their levels of trust in government and within society.

  1. Design centralized systems sensitive to local concerns.

Countries that were centralized but carried out programs through local authorities found they were empowered to find solutions that work at the local level.

  1. Recognize that no country can cope with shock entirely on its own.

South Korea’s commitment to continuous learning, scientific expertise, and following the data extended  to assimilating insights from other countries as well.