COVID: How the WHO decision on the state of emergency will impact Canada

On January 27, the World Health Organization’s Emergencies Committee will decide whether the COVID-19 pandemic remains a global emergency—and the decision could affect how governments Governments, including Canada, are working to tackle the virus.

The title declaring the state of emergency, known as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, is the highest level of alert for the United Nations agency and the issuance of the declaration helps accelerate the research, funding and international public health measures to prevent this disease.

At a news conference on Friday, federal public health officials told reporters Canada will continue to monitor minor variants of COVID-19 and urged people to get booster shots. As Omicron’s newest sub-variant, Kraken, spreads across the country, officials say the pandemic isn’t over yet.

The WHO committee is comprised of independent experts who will assess the evolution of the COVID-19 virus and the pressure it is placing on health services around the world.

On Friday, Canada’s Director of Public Health Dr Theresa Tam said the UN decision was an “important consideration.”

“Whatever the decision of the Director-General of WHO, I think we just need to continue with what we are doing now,” she said.

The latest sub-variant of Omicron XBB.1.5, nicknamed ‘Kraken’, is the dominant variant in the United States and has begun to spread throughout Canada. Experts warn it is the most contagious variant to date but is not associated with increasing severity.

“In the coming year, we need to continue to monitor the evolution of the Omicron variant virus because it is still spreading quite strongly in the world, there is about to be a mutation,” Tam said at the press conference.

Global COVID-19 vaccine equity continues to be emphasized by officials in preventing more variants from emerging. Places like the Southern Hemisphere lack access to vaccines while Western countries provide a wide range of boosters.

“More needs to be done to tackle vaccine inequalities around the world and prevent the emergence of the next devastating variant,” a report published October 2022 in the Journal Infectious Diseases International said.

Periodically in the three years since the declaration, the United Nations has met to reaffirm the global emergency of COVID-19. It was last reaffirmed in July 2022.

Canada’s Deputy Director of Public Health Dr Howard Njoo warned people to think the pandemic was over.

“We’re not over the pandemic yet,” Njoo said in French during Friday’s press conference. “I think we’re past the acute phase of the pandemic, but of course, the virus is continuing to spread in Canada and around the world.”

Hospitals in Canada have been under pressure over the past few months, as nurse burnout, COVID-19, influenza and RSV severely impacted patient admissions and emergency room wait times.

Njoo emphasizes continuing to monitor COVID-19 for new variants and to study the long-term symptoms of the virus.

“We’re continuing to deliver the same messages: Get vaccinated, update your vaccination schedule and we’ll see what happens,” Njoo said. “Treatment and research are still very important for COVID, perhaps the vaccine will also have to be modified… We must not let our guard down.”

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