Two steps forward and then two steps backward. That's the reaction by many people regarding the coronavirus pandemic, as the delta variant appeared to be winding down, only to be replaced by omicron.
"Every time we think things are going to get better, then we're hit again," said Karestan C. Koenen, professor in the department of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The United States is currently the hardest-hit nation by the extremely contagious omicron variant. Some 1.35 million new infections were reported on Monday, the highest daily total for any country worldwide.
The uncertainty, stress and anxiety are taking a toll on people who wonder if the pandemic will ever go away.
"When will the COVID-19 pandemic end?" cried out the headline on a website article in December by McKinsey & Company, a U.S. management consulting firm. The article noted that omicron "is a sobering reminder that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) has the advantage of rapid mutation and can produce new variants faster than anyone would like."
That concerns Dr. David Aronoff, an infectious disease expert and chair of the department of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine.
Looking at the future of a pandemic that completely caught the world by surprise in 2019 "is like a public health vehicle trying to drive through the bad weather of a pandemic," he told VOA.
"And even though we have the best headlights, we can't see beyond this fog. In other words, we really don't know if there's going to be another variant that may create a lot of havoc," he said.
"I think people are slowly starting to realize that we need to learn to live with this, because the virus is not going away," said Dr. Lucy McBride, a primary care physician in Washington.
"It's going to ultimately become endemic like any other rhinoviruses (like the common cold) we live with," she predicted during an interview with VOA. "However, we may need an annual shot to protect ourselves against the infection."
Besides physical health, mental health protection during pandemics will also be key.
"We're exhausted and frustrated because we have to work against this programming in our brains that constantly tries to make predictions, and that has been difficult to do with this virus," explained Christine Runyan, a professor in the department of family medicine and community health at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School.
During any future pandemics, "people who have a high degree of psychological flexibility will experience less frustration," she said.
Runyan predicts the omicron variant will peak at the end of January, with cases falling in February and March. "But then, another variant will probably come out," she said.
"There is a sense of pessimism that this isn't going away anytime in the near future," explained Kevin Antshel, director of the clinical psychology program at Syracuse University. "We need to grow more tolerant of the uncertainty, since it would help us cope and adjust our way of life, which should include a strong social support system."
Around for the 'long haul'
Besides the experts, people across the U.S. also had opinions.
"I think COVID is with us for the long haul, and I'm trying not to let it bother me," Rosemary McMahon in Stuart, Florida, told VOA. "I hope they come up with a cure, but I'm not going to let this affect my mental well-being. The vaccines seem to be working. I think society should treat COVID like any other virus."
"I'm also not worried about it being around forever," said Chris Mohr of Denver, Colorado, "because I think eventually, we will get this more under control. I am especially concerned, however, about eradicating the infection in places like Africa, which has largely been unvaccinated."
Carolyn Turner of Carlsbad, California, said she thinks "all governments will need to mandate vaccines during any pandemics, because the unvaccinated are putting the rest of society at long-term risk."
If the pandemics continue, society will have to evolve and change, noted the experts.
Koenen said more people in the U.S. may choose to wear masks "most of the time." And it may not be acceptable for people to go to work with a cold or children to school when they're not feeling well.
Aronoff said predicting when pandemics are likely to happen is key.
"We've been horrible at predicting the future of this pandemic," he said. "But we're definitely getting better at knowing what we need to do to keep people safe, like having widely available vaccines and therapeutics. If we do those things, I think we will get to a place with SARS-CoV-2 where we will be fine coexisting with future pandemics."