It’s a question many have been asking for almost two years: when will the coronavirus pandemic end?
“Epidemiologically speaking, we don't know. Perhaps in another month or two — if there's no other variants of concern that pop up, at least here in United States,” says J. Alexander Navarro, assistant director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan.
“Socially, I think we're kind of already at the point where the pandemic has ended. Many states are removing the vestiges of their mask mandates. We see people essentially moving on with their lives.”
As of February 16, 2022, about 78 million people in the United States have contracted COVID-19 and 923,067 of them have died. Seventy-six percent of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Sara Sawyer, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, agrees the end might finally be in sight, in part thanks to Omicron, a COVID-19 variant that emerged in November 2021.
“It is essentially vaccinating many people who were resistant to getting vaccinated because a lot of those people got infected in this wave,” Sawyer says. “And so, that's just going to make it really hard for viruses to spread through in these giant waves like Omicron anymore because we have so many people with resistance that they've acquired through previous infection or a vaccine.”
Experts predict that more than 70% of people in the United States are now either vaccinated or have recovered from a coronavirus infection, Sawyer says. She adds that an extra bonus for those who get an actual infection is that they develop much more sophisticated systems of immunity against that virus.
A pandemic is generally considered “over” when a virus becomes endemic.
“When viruses become predictable — in their patterns, in their seasonality and in the number of people that they might infect and the number of deaths that they might cause — we say that a virus has become endemic,” Sawyer says. “That means it has settled down into a long-term existence with the human population.”
And while COVID-19 might never completely go away, future variants are not expected to be as severe as past ones.
“If you were infected with one variant, and I was infected with another variant, and I ended up in the emergency room the next day, and you had just a tickle in your throat and went to your son's baseball game, in the grocery store and to a birthday party, whose variant is going to spread better?” Sawyer says. “Your variant is going to spread better. We know from the history of viral evolution, viruses are snaking their way toward being less deadly and more transmissible. … Viruses become more transmissible when they don't make people as sick.”
But the danger of calling the pandemic over before it’s really over remains.
“I think, socially, most people are leaning toward this pandemic being over when, epidemiologically, it's not,” Navarro says. “There is essentially no going back. And the fear that I have today is that if we have another variant of concern that pops up, I don't know if we're going to get people to go back to masking, if we're going to be able to implement any sort of structured closure orders if we need to.”
During the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed up to 50 million people worldwide, Americans got tired of being constrained and prematurely gave up on flu prevention measures. Two more waves of the flu pandemic hit the United States, resulting in more deaths.
While some parallels can be drawn between COVID-19 and the 1918 flu pandemic, looking to the past isn’t always a good barometer for when this pandemic might end because of the advanced knowledge and technology that exists today.
“We know exactly what we're supposed to do, and this is an advantage that people of the past did not necessarily have,” says Nükhet Varlik, associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark. “We have the vaccines. We have the public health regulations in place. We have the medical expertise, so we actually know what to do. So we're actually at an unprecedented advantage when we compare ourselves to past societies. We can actually do the right things. Whether we do the right things, that’s another question.”
Varlik says asking when the pandemic might end is misleading, fueling false hopes rather than focusing on trying to control and mitigate the pandemic.
“It will become endemic, but that doesn't mean that it cannot become pandemic again. So, it's kind of like a dance … it can be pandemic or epidemic or endemic, and it can change over time,” Varlik says. “I am pretty confident that COVID will continue to be epidemic in one part of the world for the foreseeable future … and, of course, with travel and other means, it can spill over to other places, to other countries. Until it's eliminated in the entire world, there is really no way of feeling safe from this disease.”
When epidemiologists will declare the pandemic over has a lot to do with how much disease a society is willing to accept and put up with, Navarro says. COVID-19 could become like the flu, killing tens of thousands of Americans every year, predominantly those in vulnerable medical categories.
“At some point, you just have to say to yourself, ‘You know, I live in the world. There are dangers in my world, infectious disease, car accidents.’ But you can't let that cripple you. Those things have always been there,” biology professor Sawyer says. “I certainly would never want to send a message that this is now yet another thing that people need to worry and have anxiety about once this becomes endemic. Instead, get your vaccine, get your flu vaccine, protect yourself and then go on with your life.”