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COVID Isn't Endemic—Yet
A Look at What the Future Holds
Let’s be clear that I am not a public health expert. That said, I’ve been writing about public health issues for a decade now (along with climate change and poverty), so I’m familiar with the problems. For today’s post, I’ll do my best to bring insights from experts and authorities.
People are beginning to talk about COVID becoming endemic. What does it mean for COVID to be endemic? The short answer: COVID isn’t going away.
In 2003, you may recall that the SARS outbreak killed hundreds of people worldwide and made everyone nervous. The disease no longer circulates. COVID will be with us for the long haul.
That COVID won’t go away isn’t necessarily the end of the world. Yonatan Grad, a Harvard professor, wrote, speaking of an endemic future, “…the optimistic view is that enough people will gain immune protection from vaccination and from natural infection such that there will be less transmission and much less COVID-19-related hospitalization and death, even as the virus continues to circulate.” That’s the best we can hope for.
People are done with COVID. They are done with masks. They are done with isolation. They have had enough Zoom meetings and virtual conferences. People crave human connection. They want to shake hands and slap backs. People want hugs.
Here’s the problem. COVID isn’t done with people. Currently, the Omicron variant is spreading across the country at an unprecedented rate. No part of the country is exempt from the rapid spread. Nationally, the high transmission rate may be peaking this week, meaning that the transmission rate and the number of people infected could begin to drop.
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Omicron is infecting some of the vaccinated as well as the unvaccinated. While the rate of severe illness observed is lower with Omicron than with Delta, it isn’t clear whether the symptoms it causes are less severe or if it is only less severe in the vaccinated population, which includes the majority of people in the country.
Breakthrough cases, those that catch the vaccinated, are certainly less severe. After October 2021, the CDC showed data that indicated unvaccinated people in the United States were ten times more likely to get infected and 20 times more likely to die from COVID. There is lots of talk about Omicron being more effective at infecting the vaccinated. The rapid spread suggests that, but the CDC has not updated its data since Omicron became the dominant strain.
The key takeaway is that talk of COVID becoming endemic is premature. We desperately want to find a way to mark the end of the pandemic and return to normal, but that isn’t happening soon.
A return to pre-pandemic norms may not ever happen. Because people are done with COVID, they’re already behaving in many ways as if it were. Spotty vaccine mandates and mask requirements may be with us permanently, especially for travel-related activities. Our lives today may more closely resemble our lives in two years than our lives two years ago when we just learned of a city in China called Wuhan.
Experts, and remember I’m not one, are not convinced we’ll need regular booster shots, but I’m betting we’ll be offered covid boosters with our flu shots every year. When transmission rates are modest, like June of 2021, or lower, we will be able to forgo masks in public and rely on our vaccinations.
For the next several weeks, however, you must be on your best COVID behavior, wearing an N95 mask when in groups, social distancing and washing your hands and sanitizing them often. If Omicron leaves as fast as it came, spring could bring relief, with experts and not just pundits talking about COVID becoming endemic.