COVID-19 public health emergency ends, but research, lessons go on

May 11, 2023
Concept illustration of COVID-19 researchers. Image credit: Nicole Smith, made with Midjourney

Today brings to a close the last of 13 federal health emergency declarations first enacted Jan. 31, 2020, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and its devastating effect on lives, health care, the economy, education and most every aspect of life across the globe.

While the decision by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to end the pandemic-era emergency affects federally funded programs (see facts) and may signal an official end to the pandemic, faculty and researchers at the University of Michigan continue to use and build on the knowledge gained and problems presented by the pandemic, using it as a catalyst for research and discoveries across a range of fields touched by COVID-19.

Epidemic, pandemic, endemic. Where are we now?

Jon Zelner, associate professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, examines how we classify where we are in the stage of infectious and disease transmission caused COVID-19.

With the end of the federal public health emergency in the U.S. and word last week that the World Health Organization declared an end to the global health emergency, it would seem the pandemic is at an end as well—but not so fast, Zelner says.

There were about 10,000 people hospitalized with COVID-19 from mid-April to early May and about 1,100 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I think where we are right now is a kind of a transition phase between an epidemic—or even a pandemic—into a kind of endemic phase. I think it’s a different kind of endemic phase than maybe we expected,” Zelner said. “I think when we hear the word endemic, sometimes we think that means kind of fading into the background.

“What we’re seeing instead is kind of a state of elevated respiratory infection rates overall and death from these kinds of infections in general. And so we’re not reverting back to where we were pre-pandemic, but we’re kind of finding something that looks like a new normal. But it’s not necessarily one that we should be that happy with.”

How COVID-19 changed education and exacerbated challenges

Elizabeth Birr Moje, dean of the Marsal Family School of Education, and colleagues have been responding to the unprecedented changes to education caused by the pandemic since its earliest days. Three years later, the research and education they provide incorporates and focuses on the needs of students, teachers and classrooms affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Each child has different educational needs now probably more than ever because of disparate learning and personal circumstances over the past three years,” she said. “Our nation’s educators are tasked with meeting these needs with differentiated instruction and attention to socio-emotional learning.

“Teachers are reporting that many of their students are dealing with trauma—at even higher rates than before the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time as educators are trying to respond to emotional needs, they are also under enormous pressure to ‘catch students up’ on content and skills. For a nation already facing teacher shortages, it is crucial that we provide educators the support they deserve so that they can continue to serve children and youth to the best of their ability.”

Expanding infectious disease tracking

Wastewater testing is one way of tracking and responding to contagious disease that may spread through a community. Several U-M researchers are involved in work that has advanced extraordinarily quickly as scientists hustled to protect public health. The work and discoveries that grew out of the need to protect public health during a pandemic continue and are likely to for years as more diseases join the COVID-19 virus in being monitored and part of a community warning system.

Krista Wigginton, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the College of Engineering; Marisa Eisenberg, professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health and professor of complex systems and mathematics at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts; and Betsy Foxman, professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Molecular and Clinical Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases at the School of Public Health, led the team that recently expanded disease detection in wastewater to include RSV, monkeypox, influenza A and norovirus GII.

COVID-19’s environmental impact

Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability, sees the documented improvements to the environment when it had a break from pollutants, traffic and other human practices that COVID-19 quieted as proof of the need to alter our activities, to see how adjusting human interactions with the planet can lead to its healing.

“While it’s important not to trivialize all the human suffering associated with this virus, there are key lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and the observed drop in pollution levels,” Overpeck said. “First and foremost is the fact that climate-change action will by definition eliminate most of the pollution-causing fossil fuel burning.

“It is clear that environment and sustainability challenges are bigger than ever, both in the U.S. and around the planet. We need to use this opportunity to rededicate ourselves to doing more, working harder and ensuring that we leave future generations an environment that is better than the one we inherited. This means stopping climate change before it stops us.”

Engaging long-COVID sufferers and COVID-19 survivors

A wide array of research into understanding experiences with COVID-19 in order to better treat, prepare and also target inequities are ongoing. Research from Nancy Fleischer, associate professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, is among them. She leads a team of researchers who conduct the Michigan COVID-19 Recovery Surveillance Study, or MI-CReSS.

In collaboration with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the team surveys Michigan residents who have had COVID and uses the answers and data to produce reports on a range of topics and demographics.

“The benefits of compiling and analyzing findings and gaining this insight and understanding of these experiences can be of value in public health for all kinds of populations, and especially populations affected by health inequities,” Fleischer said. “The opportunities to use the data to benefit the public are numerous for any future public health crises.”

The next report in the series examines differences in COVID-19 experiences between rural and urban residents. The last report analyzed stigma and fear of disclosure.

Preparing for the next pandemic

Aubree Gordon, associate professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, leads the Michigan Center for Infectious Disease Threats and Pandemic Preparedness. The $13.8 million biosciences initiative launched in 2021.

The initiative is focused on maximizing the breadth of scientific expertise and collaboration across campus and increasing lab and staff infrastructure. It brings together researchers from public health, engineering, medicine, evolutionary biology and social sciences to work across disciplines on issues key to infectious disease preparedness and response, including public health workforce development, greater lab capacity, expanding capacity for protein production for disease-testing and adding testing of zoonotic pathogens.

“Since 2000, we’ve had three coronaviruses that are new to humans cause outbreaks or the current pandemic, and we’ve had three influenza viruses try to make the jump from animals to humans, and one succeeded,” Gordon said. “So what’s the likelihood that we see another pandemic in our lives? I’ll say the likelihood is pretty high.”

More information: A collection of COVID-19 news and research from U-M over the last three years.