“But these are not just numbers – every single case is a mother, a father, a son, a daughter, a brother, sister or friend”, said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General.
The global caseload for COVID-19 has surpassed 3.5 million, with nearly 250,000 deaths.
Although numbers are declining in Western Europe, WHO said more cases are being reported every day from Eastern Europe, Africa, South-East Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Americas.
However, even within regions and within countries, there are divergent trends, the agency added.
The dilemma of rising caseloads
While some countries are reporting an increase in COVID-19 cases over time, many have seen caseloads rise because they have ramped up testing, WHO officials said in response to a journalist’s question.
“It’s not good in terms of seeing cases, in terms of transmission, but I don’t want to equate that with something (being) wrong” said Dr. Maria van Kerkhove of WHO’s Emerging Diseases and Zoonoses Unit.
“I want to equate that with countries are working very hard to increase their ability to find the virus, to find people with the virus, to have testing in place to identify who has COVID-19, and…putting into place what they need to do to care for those patients.”
Her colleague, Dr. Michael Ryan, added that it is difficult to determine whether the situation in any region is improving or not, though countries with existing humanitarian crises are a concern, such as Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and Haiti.
“We need to focus on ensuring that the most vulnerable people in the world get prioritized assistance in this response”, said Dr. Ryan, WHO’s Executive Director.
Return to lockdown risk ‘very real’
With more countries considering easing restrictions implemented to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, WHO has again reminded authorities of the need to maintain vigilance.
“The risk of returning to lockdown remains very real if countries do not manage the transition extremely carefully, and in a phased approach,” Tedros warned.
He urged countries to consider the UN agency’s six criteria for lifting stay-at-home measures.
That advice includes ensuring surveillance is strong, cases are declining and transmission is controlled. Health systems also must be able to detect, isolate, test and treat cases, and to trace all contacts.
Additionally, the risk of outbreak in settings such as health facilities and nursing homes needs to be minimized, while schools, workplaces and other public locations should have preventive measures in place.
Countries must also be able to manage any risk of the disease being imported into their territories, and communities should be fully educated to adjust to what will be a “new norm”.
‘No going back to business as usual’
As countries press forward in the common fight against COVID-19, Tedros said they should also lay the groundwork for resilient health systems globally.
“The COVID-19 pandemic will eventually recede, but there can be no going back to business as usual”, he stated. “We cannot continue to rush to fund panic but let preparedness go by the wayside”.
Tedros said the crisis has highlighted the importance of strong national health systems as the foundation of global health security: not only against pandemics but also against the multitude of health threats that people across the world face every day.
“If we learn anything from COVID-19, it must be that investing in health now will save lives later”, he said.
While the world currently spends around $7.5 trillion on health annually, WHO believes the best investments are in promoting health and preventing disease.
Said Tedros: “Prevention is not only better than cure, it’s cheaper, and the smartest thing to do.”
Contract-tracing apps useful, but in-person better
Contact tracing remains a fundamental tool in controlling COVID-19, but mobile apps for this task cannot take the place of public health staff.
Instead, apps can supplement the work carried out by epidemiologists, volunteers and others to identify people who have been in contact with someone who has had the disease.
“What’s important about the people that do this is that we need to find cases through personal interaction and through interviews: all done physically distanced, of course”, said Dr. van Kerkhove.
“The apps can help but they don’t replace people who need to do that contact tracing”.
Dr. Ryan, the WHO Executive Director, added that several countries and private sector consortiums have developed a variety of apps. Some provide information on COVID-19 so that people can check their symptoms to determine taking further action.
Meanwhile, mobility tracking apps are helping to narrow down the number of contacts. They are also being used for modelling and predicting the likely trajectory of the disease.
“Obviously, countries have to take very good care of the fact that tracking people’s location needs to be done for the sole purpose of COVID-19 response”, he said.