As CDC Eases Mask Restrictions, WHO Says 2nd Year of Pandemic Will Be 'Far More Deadly' Than First

The World Health Organization warned on Friday that despite progress with vaccinations, COVID-19 is likely to claim more lives in its second year than it did in the first.

After cases spread worldwide, the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020, and in the following year, more than 2.6 million people were reported to have died of the virus. In just the two months since, that number has risen to more than 3.3 million and with vaccines in low supply in lower-income countries, the situation could get worse.

"We're on track for the second year of the pandemic to be far more deadly than the first," Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said on Friday. "Saving lives and livelihoods with a combination of public health measures and vaccinations, not one or the other, is the only way out of the pandemic."

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On Friday, the WHO warned the second year of the pandemic could be "far more deadly" than the first. Rescue volunteers from the Siam Nonthaburi foundation carry the coffin of a woman, who died after contracting COVID-19, to the crematorium at Wat Rat Prakhong Tham Buddhist temple in Nonthaburi, Thailand, on May 5. LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images

Worldwide, more than 674 million people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, including 150 million people in the United States. As more people have been vaccinated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started easing restrictions and on Thursday, lifted all recommendations for people to wear masks after they've been fully vaccinated.

When asked if the WHO agreed with the CDC's move, Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the WHO's emerging diseases unit, said on Friday that it wasn't as simple as a "yes" or "no" answer. Masks, she said, are recommended as part of a comprehensive strategy to controlling the outbreak, but easing restrictions depends on the level of vaccinations, concerning variants and the amount of virus that is spreading.

She and Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, used Australia as an example of the ability to lift restrictions without high levels of vaccinations. Ryan noted that before Australians were widely vaccinated, they were able to go to sporting events without masks because there was a small amount of virus that was spreading.

Cases have started to decline in the United States and more than 118 million people are considered fully vaccinated. Comfortable with the country's supply of the vaccines, on Monday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized Pfizer's vaccine to be administered to people as young as 12-years-old.

"The FDA's expansion of the emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine to include adolescents 12 through 15 years of age is a significant step in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic," acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said. "Today's action allows for a younger population to be protected from COVID-19, bringing us closer to returning to a sense of normalcy and to ending the pandemic."

America isn't alone in vaccinating its youth and Israel, Belgium and Indonesia have all started administering doses to people under 18 years old. At Friday's briefing, Ghebreyesus acknowledged that it's reasonable for countries to want to vaccinate their children and teenagers. However, he urged them to donate vaccine doses to COVAX instead. COVAX is a joint effort between the WHO, Gavi the Vaccine Alliance and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to provide vaccine doses to lower-income countries.

Vaccine supply has been so low in some areas that healthcare workers can't even be vaccinated, thereby inundating hospitals with patients. Ghebreyesus pointed to the massive outbreak in India and cautioned that the pandemic can only truly end when the world, not individual countries, is widely vaccinated.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Drugs, believes America can do both—vaccinate its youth and help other countries.

This article has been updated to reflect the involvement of Gavi the Vaccine Alliance and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) in COVAX.