Global COVID cases fall as CDC extends travel mask order

Empty hospital bed
Empty hospital bed

Valerii Apetroaiei / iStock

Global COVID-19 cases have declined for the third week in a row, with deaths easing off to levels seen early in the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in its latest assessments of the pandemic.

At a briefing today, however, WHO officials urged countries not to drop their guard, as a few locations report spikes and some—like the United States—see early signs of new rises.

Citing concerns about a case uptick, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today extended the mask order for public transit by 2 weeks.

Global cases, deaths both drop

In its latest weekly update on the pandemic, the WHO said cases dropped 24% last week from the week before, with all regions reporting declining cases.

Of about 7 million cases reported last week, the five countries logging the most included South Korea, Germany, France, Vietnam, and Italy. Deaths were down 18%, with the most reported from the United States.

Of virus samples sequenced over the past 30 days, 99.2% were the Omicron variant. Among Omicron subvariants, the WHO said it is monitoring BA.4 and BA.5, which have mutations that might contribute to immune escape. It said both have S-gene dropout, which helps distinguish them from the more dominant BA.2 and is useful for tracking the spread. The two subvariants have been detected in a few countries, and more work is under way to assess them.

At today's WHO briefing, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said some countries are still seeing serious spikes in cases, which are putting pressure on hospitals. And he warned that the capacity to track COVID-19 trends is compromised as countries reduce testing for the virus.

Call to beef-up response plans

In a related development, the WHO's COVID-19 emergency committee met for the 11th time earlier this week to review the latest developments and to fine-tune its temporary recommendations.

Emergency committees typically meet every 3 months or more often, as needed. The group's last meeting was in the middle of January.

At today's briefing, the WHO said the emergency committee concluded that the COVID-19 situation still warrants a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), with the experts adding one new recommendation and modifying its earlier advice. In the new recommendation, the group urged countries to strengthen their national response to COVID-19 by updated preparedness and response plans based on various ways the pandemic might play out as spelled out in the WHO's most recent response plan.

Regarding the emergency committee's assessments, Tedros said one of the take-home messages is that countries should not let their guard down and now is the moment to work even harder to save lives. He added that the emphasis should be on equitable access, not just to vaccines, but also to treatments and testing.

"Diagnosing at-risk patients early enough for new antivirals to be effective is essential and should be available to everyone, everywhere," Tedros said.

In other global developments:

  • As cases in China rise, especially in Shanghai, President Xi Jinping today said the country must press on with its strict COVID-19 control and prevention measures, according to Reuters. Lockdowns and other measures have led to supply chain problems and have been a drag on China's and the world's economies. China today reported 27,920 new cases, 26,420 of them asymptomatic. Shanghai accounted for 79% of the symptomatic cases and 95% of the asymptomatic cases.

  • Italy's National Health Institute today estimated that COVID-19 vaccination cut the country's death toll in half. A study conducted from January 2021 through January 2022 suggested that vaccination prevented 150,000 deaths and 8 million illnesses over that span. Researchers also said vaccination prevented 500,000 hospitalizations and more than 55,000 intensive care unit admissions.

CDC extends travel mask order

Today the CDC said masks will remain required on airplanes and trains for 2 additional weeks, as the nation faces a slight uptick in cases caused by the BA.2 subvariant. The CDC Nowcast estimates that BA.2 now accounts for 85.9% of new US COVID-19 cases.

The federal mask mandate for planes and trains was set to expire on Apr 18, but it has been extended until May 3.

In a media statement, the CDC said, "The CDC Mask Order remains in effect while CDC assesses the potential impact of the rise of cases on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and healthcare system capacity. TSA [Transportation Security Administration] will extend the security directive and emergency amendment for 15 days."

Also today, the CDC announced it was revamping its Travel Health Notice system for international destinations beginning on Apr 18.

Now, only countries with "rapidly escalating case trajectory or extremely high case counts, emergence of a new variant of concern, or healthcare infrastructure collapse," will be issued a level 4 for COVID-19.

"With this new configuration, travelers will have a more actionable alert for when they should not travel to a certain destination (Level 4), regardless of vaccination status, until we have a clearer understanding of the COVID-19 situation at that destination," the CDC said.

The United States reported 27,853 new COVID-19 cases yesterday and 561 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker. The 7-day average of new daily cases is 31,276, with 516 daily deaths, according to the Washington Post tracker.

CIDRAP News Reporter Stephanie Soucheray contributed to this story.

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