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Considerations for implementing and adjusting public health and social measures in the context of COVID-19 - Interim guidance (14 June 2021)

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Manual and Guideline
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Key Messages

  • Public health and social measures (PHSM) have proven critical to limiting transmission of COVID-19 and reducing deaths.

  • The decision to introduce, adapt or lift PHSM should be based primarily on a situational assessment of the intensity of transmission and the capacity of the health system to respond, but must also be considered in light of the effects these measures may have on the general welfare of society and individuals.

  • Indicators and suggested thresholds are provided to gauge both the intensity of transmission and the capacity of the health system to respond; taken together, these provide a basis for guiding the adjustment of PHSM. Measures are indicative and need to be tailored to local contexts.

  • PHSM must be continuously adjusted to the intensity of transmission and capacity of the health system in a country and at sub-national levels.

  • When PHSM are adjusted, communities should be fully consulted and engaged before changes are made.

  • In settings where robust PHSMs are otherwise in place to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2, allowing the relaxation of some measures for individuals with natural or vaccine-induced immunity may contribute to limiting the economic and social hardship of control measures. Applying such individualized public health measures must take into account a number of ethical and technical considerations.

Introduction

Public health and social measures (PHSMs) are being implemented across the globe to suppress SARS-CoV-2 transmission and reduce mortality and morbidity from COVID-19. PHSMs include personal protective measures (e.g. physical distancing, avoiding crowded settings, hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, mask-wearing); environmental measures (e.g. cleaning, disinfection, ventilation); surveillance and response measures (e.g. testing, genetic sequencing, contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine); physical distancing measures (e.g. regulating the number and flow of people attending gatherings, maintaining distance in public or workplaces, domestic movement restrictions); and international travel-related measures. In this context, it does not include medical countermeasures such as drug administration or vaccination. PHSMs act in concert, and a combination of measures is required to ensure adequate control. Measures should be implemented by the lowest administrative level for which situational assessment is possible and tailored to local settings and conditions.

Several important developments have occurred since the publication of the previous Considerations for implementing and adjusting public health and social measures in the context of COVID-19. First, several COVID-19 vaccines have been approved by national regulatory authorities and through WHO Emergency Use Listing (EUL). Vaccination has begun in most countries, bringing the prospect of significantly reducing severe disease and mortality further. Initial observational studies following rollout of vaccines suggest that vaccines may lead to protection against infection and a reduction in transmission, which in addition to PHSMs will help control the spread of the virus. Second, four WHO-classified variants of concern (VOCs) have emerged since December 2020, which are more transmissible and some of which may cause more severe disease and/or lead to a degree of vaccine escape, requiring potential adjustments to response measures to account for their different characteristics, including their impact on vaccine effectiveness. Several other variants of interest (VOIs) are also being monitored. Finally, more evidence is now available on the effectiveness of a range of individual and community-level measures (outlined in Table 3).

Control of SARS-CoV-2 will depend on: i) the prevalence of infection and of circulating variants; ii) the rate of growth or decline in incidence; iii) the types, use of and adherence to control measures in place; iv) the speed with which vaccination occurs; v) the targeting and uptake of the vaccines among high-risk groups; and vi) vaccine effectiveness and natural immunity in the population. National vaccination strategies should prioritize older individuals at highest risk of severe outcomes and health workers, to rapidly reduce mortality and the burden of disease and protect health care services. However, with successful COVID-19 vaccination of older populations following the prioritization of vulnerable groups, the virus may continue to spread among unvaccinated younger population groups. After achieving high vaccination coverage of SAGE priority groups for stage I and stage II (as outlined in the WHO SAGE Roadmap For Prioritizing Uses of COVID-19 Vaccines in the Context of Limited Supply) across all countries, accelerating vaccination of other priority groups will be required to lower the infection rate, especially in areas of high population density.

While vaccination is underway, PHSMs will need to continue to be implemented, in a tailored and agile way, particularly considering uncertainty in vaccine performance against known and potentially emerging VOCs and limited sequencing capacity to detect variants worldwide. Moreover, significant inequities in global vaccine access mean that, globally, control of disease will continue to rely on PHSM for the foreseeable future, modulated by different levels of vaccination. Implementation of stricter PHSMs, however, needs to be balanced against their socio-economic impacts, especially in settings with high dependence on daily wages and informal economy. Decisions to tighten, loosen, or introduce PHSMs to control COVID-19 must be weighed against the positive and negative impacts these measures have on societies and individuals. Considerations include impacts on health, economy, security, mental health, and psychosocial wellbeing, human rights, food security, socioeconomic disparities, continuity of other public health programmes, treatment and management of medical conditions other than COVID-19 and gender-based violence. Other important considerations include vaccine acceptance and uptake, confidence, trust, motivational elements to get vaccinated and public sentiment and adherence to PHSMs. The overall health and wellbeing of communities should therefore be at the forefront of considerations when deciding on and adjusting PHSMs.

As the pandemic continues to evolve, PHSMs should be regularly reviewed and adjusted according to the local epidemiology. This requires agile decision-making based on ongoing situational assessments at the most local administrative level possible in a coherent and coordinated manner with neighbouring areas at the sub-national and national levels. Such assessments should be based on available data and take a risk/benefit approach considering the local epidemiology, the health system’s capacity to respond and other contextual considerations (such as upcoming mass gathering events that may alter transmission or capacity). Epidemiological indicators and their thresholds will depend on a country’s testing and surveillance strategies and capacities, data collection capacity, vaccination strategy and coverage and the overall COVID-19 response strategy. In settings where COVID-19 surveillance or testing capacities are limited, it is important to identify and utilize additional indicators on morbidity, mortality and pressure on the health system, such as bed occupancy for both regular hospital beds and ICU beds, to complement available epidemiological data

This document provides guidance to help Member States assess the situation at national and sub-national levels, as well as key recommendations about the implementation of PHSMs. It should be read in conjunction with WHO interim guidance documents on Critical preparedness, readiness and response actions for COVID-19 and Considerations for implementing a risk-based approach to international travel in the context of COVID-19, which address several other elements of preparedness, readiness and response for COVID-19 beyond PHSMs.

This guidance document is intended for public health and health services decision-makers at all levels at which decisions about tailored PHSMs are made and technical actors involved in relevant sectors (e.g. community engagement, education, social services) supporting or impacted by PHSMs.

The guidance will be updated as our knowledge evolves, in particular in relation to the impact of VOCs on vaccine-induced and natural immunity, the impact of various COVID-19 vaccines on transmission and the impact of PHSMs on VOCs.