RISE 2022: Don't expect COVID-19 to be done as wave dissipates, former CDC official Nancy Messonnier says

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Even though the country is through the worst of the COVID-19 surge caused by the omicron variant, don’t expect that the pandemic is totally done, a former top Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) official said. 

Nancy Messonnier spoke at the RISE 2022 National Conference in Nashville on Wednesday on what to learn from the COVID-19 pandemic and how to prepare for the next one. 

Messonnier served as the head of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. She noted that “we are through the worst of it now” in reference to the massive surge caused by the omicron variant, which is highly transmissible.

“The data really suggests population immunity high enough from exposure or vaccination we will be safe for a while, but it doesn’t mean that it's done and we shouldn’t expect that it's done,” she said. “It would be naïve to not be ready for another wave coming.”

Messonnier detailed how, at the onset of the pandemic, mitigation measures were implemented more like an on/off switch that came rapidly instead of dialing up or down the measures like masking.

“I think the mistake we made is not communicating that appropriately to folks as they let down their guard,” she said.

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People also need to think more about this stage of the pandemic in terms of risk tolerance, “which is not something we are good at as individuals or conveying to people. We need to appreciate people have different levels of risk or tolerance for risk.”

Messonnier also said there were some aspects of the pandemic that the healthcare industry should have seen coming, chief among them the dearth of supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) at the onset of the pandemic. 

“In 2017, some colleagues of mine wrote this report that came out of their experience with Ebola and H1N1 flu outbreak that said in a pandemic we are going to have shortages of PPE,” she said. 

The largest driver of the shortage would be a minimal ability to ramp up production that is primarily overseas, which did happen as supply chain snarls in China and other countries caused major delays and sent health systems scrambling to find new sources. The supply chain issues caused a new emphasis on increasing domestic PPE production.

“What shocks me is not only were we weren’t prepared at the beginning of the pandemic but after every one of these waves we put down our guard, don’t plan for the next one and get surprised that diagnostics are not widely available or PPE isn’t widely available,” Messonnier said.