As Thanksgiving approaches, heralding the second holiday season of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us will no doubt reflect on how different this winter is from the last—largely because of widespread, effective vaccines and booster shots. But although things are more normal than they’ve been in a while, much is still the same, including headlines about safety worries and mask mandates, and reports of cases increasing nationwide. It’s reasonable to wonder when the pandemic will truly be over and pre-COVID life can resume. Here’s what experts have to say about when COVID will end. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.
Experts emphasize that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. Despite the advent of effective vaccines and boosters, sixty million people in the U.S. are unvaccinated. “Overall, there’s still a lot of human wood left for this coronavirus forest fire to burn,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, on his podcast this month.
Osterholm said he is “skeptical that we won’t be seeing new hotspots emerge in this country over the next several weeks and months. So where do I see us going? I think we will continue to see surges. They may not be nearly as high as the ones we’ve just had, but they will occur.”
In January, Nature surveyed more than 100 virus experts about whether COVID-19 will be eradicated or become endemic, meaning that it will continue to circulate in places throughout the globe for years. Almost 90% said COVID will become endemic.
“It doesn’t end. We just stop caring. Or we care a lot less,” predicted Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in the Washington Post last month. “I think for most people, it just fades into the background of their lives.”
For now at least, vaccinations have made COVID much less risky: If you’re fully vaccinated, you may develop a breakthrough infection, but chances are it will be more like a bad cold that won’t put you in the hospital.
“I think it’s becoming slowly part of the furniture,” Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at the University of California at Irvine, told the Post. He still wears masks in public but not an N95. “I don’t want to wear scuba gear everywhere I go. This is just part of the human environment now.”
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Vox explains that for an infectious disease to be considered endemic, the rate of infections has to stabilize from year to year (aside from expected seasonal surges). “A disease is endemic if the reproductive number is stably at one. That means one infected person, on average, infects one other person,” said Eleanor Murray, a Boston University epidemiologist. “Right now, we are nowhere near that. Each person who’s infected is infecting more than one person.”
“In general, a virus becomes endemic when we — health experts, governmental bodies, and the public — collectively decide that we’re okay with accepting the level of impact the virus has,” said Vox. “And obviously, that’s a tricky thing: People will differ as to what constitutes an acceptable level.”
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Experts say that to protect yourself in the near term: Get vaccinated, and get your booster shot. Ensure those around you do the same. Even if you’re vaccinated, wear masks in public when transmission in your local area is considered “substantial or high” (meaning more than 50 cases per 100,000 residents). Keep washing your hands regularly.
But things get a bit slippery after that. What exactly is safe? Going to the movies? Thanksgiving or Christmas with several generations of the family? How about that indoor midwinter wedding?
For now, many experts say that once you’re fully vaccinated and boosted, your resumption of pre-pandemic activities depends on your level of risk tolerance. And that will involve doing some mental calculus: Will everyone around you be vaccinated? Is it an indoor activity? Will everyone wear masks? How high is the transmission rate in the local area? Will you return home to someone who’s unvaccinated or vulnerable to severe COVID-19?
“My feeling now is that we’re nearing a steady state where things might get a little better or worse, for the next few years. It’s not great, but it is what it is,” said Robert M. Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, in the Washington Post. “There’s no cavalry coming, so decisions now should be predicated on this being something near steady state. To me, particularly once I got my booster, it prompts me to accept a bit more risk, mainly because if I’m not comfortable doing it now, I’m basically saying that I won’t do it for several years, and maybe forever.”
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Follow the fundamentals and help end this pandemic, no matter where you live—get vaccinated ASAP; if you live in an area with low vaccination rates, wear an N95 face mask, don’t travel, social distance, avoid large crowds, don’t go indoors with people you’re not sheltering with (especially in bars), practice good hand hygiene, and to protect your life and the lives of others, don’t visit any of these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.