US far from normal: Covid death rate much higher than flu: report

Nurse Practitioner Deborah Beauplan performs a COVID-19 swab test at a test site set up in Suffolk County, New York.

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The US has a long way to go before the pandemic is over and life returns to a semblance of normality as the death toll from Covid-19 remains much higher than from seasonal respiratory viruses like the flu, a team of two dozen scientists, doctors and public health experts healthcare. said in a 136 page report published on Monday.

The report lays out a roadmap for the US to transition to a new normal where the country can live with Covid without major disruption to daily life. While the nation has made progress, Covid still causes an “unbearable” death rate that experts say far exceeds the toll from the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, even in bad years.

In past years, up to 1,150 people died weekly from respiratory viruses such as influenza and RSV without emergency mitigation measures. Yet the death toll from Covid remains about 10 times higher, with 12,000 people dying from the virus in some weeks, according to the report. More than 9,000 people have died from Covid in the last week alone, according to the CDC.

White House Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci has previously said the US can safely return to a more normal lifestyle when the disease burden from Covid resembles common respiratory viruses such as influenza and RSV.

Some of the report’s authors are leading health experts who were part of President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 transition team. Among them are Michael Osterholm, head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minnesota; Dr. Zeke Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania, Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy; Dr. Luciana Borio, Global Health Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Rick Bright, CEO of the Institute for Pandemic Prevention.

The report comes at a time when elected leaders across the country are lifting public health measures in response to a sharp decline in Covid infections and hospitalizations following the peak of the omicron wave this winter.

Biden, in his State of the Union address last week, said the country was returning to normal and urged Americans to get back to work in person. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said more than 90% of Americans live in areas where they can remove their masks, according to the agency’s new Covid guidance.

On Monday, New Jersey lifted the public health emergency declared in response to the omicron, and New York City lifted the school mask requirement as well as the indoor lunch vaccine requirement. The states were the two hardest-hit places in the country during the first wave of Covid in the spring of 2020 and during the micro-micron surge this winter.

The report notes that higher levels of immunity in the population due to vaccination and natural infection will make even the worst case not as severe as feared. Under this pessimistic scenario, up to 264,000 people could die from Covid between now and March 2023 if a new variant emerges that infects 80% of the US population, with 0.1% of those who catch it dying, according to report. That’s about half the death toll in each of the previous two years of the pandemic in the US.

According to the optimistic scenario, in the future, the annual number of deaths from Covid could be as low as 20,000 people.

“It’s less horrifying than many expected,” the authors wrote. “This is mainly a result of higher population immunity through vaccination and infection rates.”

However, the authors of the report warn against complacency, inaction and “premature triumphalism.”

The report calls for the US to make major investments to better deal with Covid in the future. According to the report, the White House should create a position on the National Security Council to advise the president on monitoring and preparing for pandemic threats. The Deputy Biosecurity Assistant will also coordinate efforts to counter anti-science information about vaccines and drugs.

The US should also invest in a multi-ingredient oral antiviral cocktail in a program similar to Operation Warp Speed, which has developed effective vaccines in record time as the virus is expected to develop resistance to any single drug, according to the report. The US also needs to improve sewage, air and animal surveillance to track Covid variants and other respiratory viruses, he said.

The report also calls for investment in the public health and medical workforce, increased research into long-term Covid, and a demand for improved air ventilation in building codes and other recommendations.

Biden, in his State of the Union address, said the US was taking steps to prepare for yet another Covid variant. He said the US could roll out new vaccines within 100 days if another option threatens the effectiveness of current shots. The President also announced a program whereby people who test positive for Covid at pharmacies and community health centers can receive free Pfizer oral antiviral tablets on the spot.

“I cannot promise that a new option will not appear. But I can promise you that we will do everything in our power to be ready if he shows up,” Biden said.

New Covid cases in the US are down 94% from the pandemic record in January. The U.S. was averaging more than 46,000 new Covid cases daily on Sunday, up from more than 802,000 on January 15, according to CNBC’s data analysis from Johns Hopkins University. According to the CDC, hospital admissions are down 79% from their peak during the omicron wave.

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