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COVID-19 cases were kept under control in countries and regions like New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Singapore for most of the pandemic. These countries previously adopted zero-COVID policies that involved stringent rules in contact tracing, border controls, quarantine, mass testing, and self-isolation to reduce the incidence of new cases. However, currently, they are experiencing a tsunami of infections.
The Omicron phase of the COVID-19 pandemic across continents is now building up a towering case tally in places that kept the disease at bay until this time which signals another rise in the wave of infections.
Dr. Michael Baler, a public health professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand, told Medical News Today that the policy followed by Asia-Pacific countries and regions was successful when COVID-19 vaccines were not extensively available for 12-18 months. He added:
Keeping COVID-19 cases at very low levels for much of this time has resulted in low hospitalizations and deaths, and has protected the economies in many jurisdictions in this region, including China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand.
However, Dr. Baker said that the emergence of Delta and Omicron BA.1 variants challenges this response. He added that New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Singapore transitioned from elimination to mitigation approaches because of the wide circulation of the more infectious Omicron BA.2 subvariant.
Will the U.S. See High Mortality COVID-19 Rates Like Hong Kong?
While Hong Kong implemented a zero COVID-19 policy during the first 12 months of the pandemic, it presently has the highest mortality rate. The rationale for the overwhelming number of hospitalizations and deaths is the poor vaccination rate in people with comorbidities and vulnerable older populations. Vaccinations for people over 80 years old are just 37%.
South Korea was once hailed as a pandemic success story and now reports daily infections topping 600,000. In recent weeks, New Zealand and Australia which had enviably low infection levels, have also seen new spikes fueled by the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron as has Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam.
Complacency among these demographics due to low COVID-19 cases earlier in the pandemic and vaccination hesitancy led to poor vaccine uptake before the emergence of Omicron.
New Zealand on the other hand, had the highest vaccination rate in the world with 95% of individuals from 12 years and older, which is why it kept its hospitalizations and deaths at bay. Dr. Baker noted:
Those countries that were able to achieve high vaccine coverage before entry and widespread circulation of the Omicron variant have been able to keep their hospitalization and death rates low. That is the case in New Zealand in particular, which still has the lowest COVID-19 mortality rate in the OECD.
Mainland China, on the other hand, insisted on the elimination policy. While there have been COVID-19 outbreaks in the Jilin province and the city of Shenzhen due to Omicron, the mortality rate was limited.
Will the U.S. Follow in Europe’s Footsteps?
The U.K., Germany, and the Netherlands are experiencing a COVID-19 surge due to the BA.2 variant. As of March 18, 2022, the U.K. reported over 89,000 cases and 127 deaths.
Experts believe that the premature withdrawal of protective systems against COVID-19, the highly infectious subvariant, and the dwindling of the vaccines may give rise to BA.2 infections. Dr. Davidson Hamer, a Boston University professor of global health and medicine said.
This [surge] may be exacerbated by the widespread loosening of restrictions including indoor mask mandates in public places and schools, and the decision by many businesses to have their employees fully return to the workplace.
There have been signs of an increase in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. despite mitigation strategies policies on spreading the virus.
Escalation of COVID-19 Infections Are Likely but Not Necessarily a Leap
Although experts predicted that the BA.2 subvariant would escalate the COVID-19 cases in the U.S. The extent is unknown because of the dissimilarity between the U.S. current pandemic situation with Europe.
For instance, Spain has had stringent COVID-19 restrictions, including outdoor masking, which were only lifted recently. While the U.S. has had few restrictions since last summer. These differences in health policies may influence the potential patterns of transmission.
What Can the U.S. Do?
The potential toll of a second Omicron wave in the U.S. has raised concerns because of low vaccination rates compared to the U.K. Only 65% of eligible citizens in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, and only 44.6% have booster shots. In the U.K. about 85.8% are fully vaccinated with 67.3% having booster shots. Dr. Hamer said about the vaccine rollout in states with low coverage.
The U.S. needs to continue widespread testing, figure out ways to allow people who self-test at home to have their antigen tests results make it into the broader public health surveillance systems, continue sequencing a reasonable proportion of positive samples, and carefully track the impact of rising cases on hospitalization rates — and be ready to reinstate mask mandates if the situation greatly worsens.
The surges in COVID-19 cases are a powerful deterrent to the dangers of complacency. As the world enters the third year of the pandemic, countries watching from afar on the brink of another round of infections can learn policy lessons on the best way to dampen COVID-19 worst effects.
The United States Should Pay Close Attention
The United States is coming out of its deadliest phase of the pandemic with the new COVID-19 cases dropping sharply, but more than 1,000 people are still dying every day from the disease. The U.S. has not seen the BA.2 wave of infection, but Western Europe has started seeing another wave.
How severe the next COVID-19 will be will depend on the public’s willingness to take preventative measures as people are already putting social distancing and masking behind them. However, COVID-19 has its schedule as it shows up time and time again.
Written by Janet Grace Ortigas
Edited by Cathy Milne-Ware
Medical News Today: Why is COVID-19 on the rise in Asia, and what does this mean for the US?
Vox: Covid-19 cases are exploding in Asia. Here’s what it means for the rest of the world; Umair Irfan
Inquirer: ADB: Asia-Pacific bond yields rise amid war in Ukraine, US Fed rate hikes; by Ben O. de Vera
Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Jernej Furman’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image by Sgt. Kaden D. Pitt Courtesy of The U.S. Army’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License