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Coronavirus Update: CDC, stinging from criticism of its handling of the pandemic, announces review and revamp

Dr. Rochelle Walensky says the CDC needs an overhaul.

J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is planning to revamp itself following a one-month review by an outside senior federal health official, according to its head, Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

The move comes after criticism of the agency for its handling of the pandemic, for issuing confusing guidance over masking, isolation and quarantine, and for changing tack repeatedly.

The CDC botched the initial rollout of a diagnostic kit that was sent to state laboratories and had to be replaced. It later flip-flopped on face mask wearing and was late to understanding that the virus was airborne. In May of 2021, for example, Walensky said vaccinated people could remove face masks indoors, just weeks before a surge of breakthrough cases that showed they could spread the virus.

The CDC, long considered a gold standard in public health care, has seen its reputation take a battering from the missteps.

Walensky said Jim Macrae, a veteran of the Health Resources and Services Administration and the Department of Health and Human Sources, will conduct the review. Several other senior CDC staffers will also gather feedback on the agency’s structure and hear ideas for change.

 “At the conclusion of this collective effort, we will develop new systems and processes to deliver our science and program to the American people, along with a plan for how CDC should be structured to facilitate the public health work we do,” Walensky said in emailed comments.

The news comes at a time when the U.S. is averaging 27,573 cases a day, according to a New York Times tracker, down 6% from two weeks ago. But cases are rising in states in the Northeast and South as the BA.2 omicron subvariant is spreading fast.

The country is averaging 15,692 hospitalizations a day, down 27% from two weeks ago. The daily death toll has fallen below 700 to 633. 

In fact, the BA.2 variant now accounts for 72% of new cases in the U.S., the CDC said separately. The subvariant in recent weeks has overtaken the original omicron variant to become the most dominant strain of the virus circulating in the U.S.

There was some positive news late Monday, when the Senate reached agreement on a slimmed-down $10 billion package for countering COVID-19 with treatments, vaccines and other steps, as the Associated Press reported. But lawmakers removed all of the funding intended to help countries overseas combat the pandemic, a move experts have consistently argued is shortsighted.

As long as vast swaths of the earth are unvaccinated, or under-vaccinated, new variants can emerge that may prove more resistant to vaccines.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said it may prove impossible for the world to reach “herd immunity” given the wily nature of the virus.

In a new article written with two NIAID officials that published Thursday in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, Fauci said the goal should be figuring out ways to live with the virus going forward.

See:UK adds nine more COVID symptoms to official list as its struggles with record case load

Fauci has long questioned herd immunity as a benchmark to end the COVID-19 pandemic, often describing the epidemiological concept as “elusive” or “mystical.”

Herd immunity is the idea that a virus is no longer considered a major public health threat once a certain percentage of the population is immune as the result of natural infection or vaccination. But the evolving nature of SARS-CoV-2 and waning immunity from the COVID-19 vaccines or natural infection all complicate the ability to hit any type of immunity threshold that would definitively signal an end to the pandemic.

“There are significant obstacles to achieving complete herd immunity with COVID-19,” the NIAID officials wrote. “‘Classical’ herd immunity, leading to disease eradication or elimination, almost certainly is an unattainable goal.”

For more, see: Fauci: Herd immunity to SARS-CoV-2 may be ‘unattainable

What is an endemic and how will we know when Covid-19 becomes one? WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez breaks down how public-health experts assess when a virus like Covid-19 enters an endemic stage. Photo: Michael Nagle/Zuma Press

Other COVID-19 news you should know about:

• The COVID-19 outbreak in China’s largest metropolis of Shanghai remains “extremely grim” amid a continuing lockdown confining around 26 million people to their homes, a city official said Tuesday, the AP reported. Director of Shanghai’s working group on epidemic control, Gu Honghui, was quoted by state media as saying that the outbreak in the city was “still running at a high level.” China has sent more than 10,000 health workers from around the country to aid the city, including 2,000 from the military, and is mass testing residents, some of whom have been locked down for weeks.

• South Africa’s national state of disaster, in place for more than two years in response to COVID-19, will end from midnight local time on Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa said, as Reuters reported. “While the pandemic is not over, while the virus remains amongst us, these conditions no longer require we remain in a national state of disaster,” he said in a televised address, referencing far lower rates of hospitalization and deaths during the country’s fourth wave of infections.

• UK budget airline EasyJet expects to cancel hundreds more flights this week because so many of its crew members are sick with COVID, the Guardian reported. The airline canceled some 222 flights over the weekend and pulled 62 scheduled for Monday because of staff shortages. The UK is currently suffering record numbers of COVID cases with one in 13 of its residents infected in the latest week.

Hong Kong, which has faced a record surge in Covid-19 cases and the world’s highest death rate, has been under strict restrictions. WSJ’s Diana Chan reports on how everyday life has changed in the city, from panic buying to an exodus of residents. Photo: Emmanuel Serna/Zuma Press

• Cruise operator Carnival Corp.
CCL,
+6.16%

said that the week of March 28 was its busiest booking seven-day period ever as demand picked up after two years of a global pandemic. The week showed a “double-digit” increase from the previous record 7-day booking total, the company said. Twenty-two out of Carnival’s 23 ships are back in year-around guest operations. Its final ship will return to service on May 2, and the company will have its newest ship in November and another new ship expected for 2023, it said. “By year-end 2022, Carnival will have more capacity sailing (as measured by ALBDs — available lower berth days) than it was sailing in 2019,” it said.

Here’s what the numbers say

The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 topped 494 million on Monday, while the death toll rose above 6.17 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. leads the world with 81.5 million cases and 997,134 fatalities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows that 217.9 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 65.6% of the population. But just 98 million are boosted, equal to 45% of the vaccinated population.

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