Is the Pandemic Over? Here’s What the Experts Say
Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and there's reason for hope.
It’s been a difficult two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began. And now, just as we’re starting to sense a possible return to normalcy, many of us feel blindsided by new events emerging on the world stage. We’re struggling to find a way to understand the Ukraine-Russia war and figure out how to help the people of Ukraine, even as we try to save money on skyrocketing gas prices at home. And yet amid all that, Americans are wondering: Is the pandemic over—finally?
That’s right: There’s a glimmer of hope that the COVID-19 crisis is ending. Face mask mandates have been lifted in all 50 states. More than 75 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one vaccination against the novel coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and effective treatments are now available. Rates of new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths have fallen nationwide (but here’s where you’re most likely to catch the virus), and people are beginning to resume their public lives.
These encouraging developments have many of us looking to the future with hope. So is the pandemic over? We posed the question to health experts to find out where we really stand.
Is the COVID-19 pandemic over?
In a word? “No,” says David Dowdy, MD, faculty expert and epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “I think it’s risky to declare the pandemic over when there is always a risk of another wave.”
In fact, the omicron BA.2 variant—sometimes called “stealth omicron” because its genetic mutations initially made it difficult to detect—is now spreading rapidly in China, Europe, and parts of the United States. In fact, this new variant appears to be 50 to 60 percent more transmissible than omicron, though not more severe, White House chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci, MD, said in an interview with ABC’s This Week.
Despite BA.2’s high transmission rate, experts are uncertain whether it will lead to a new spike in U.S. cases. Our existing immunity from vaccinations and infections from the previous omicron wave may be protective.
Still, the pandemic—defined as the worldwide spread of a disease—isn’t officially over until the World Health Organization says so.
Just as the WHO declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, the international group now meets every three months to assess the situation and will make an official determination—eventually—as to when the emergency is over. Given the likelihood of future COVID-19 waves, Dr. Dowdy and other experts say the next meeting, scheduled for April, is unlikely to result in such a declaration.
“We are almost certain to see a new variant,” Dr. Dowdy says, though “the size of the corresponding waves is very difficult to predict.”
Is the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic over?
Whether the worst of the pandemic is behind you largely depends on who you are and where you live. In the United States, the answer is yes for most people.
“It’s hard for people to remember now just how bad things were the first year of the pandemic. I would say the first year was worse than this last year has been, and future years are going to get better,” Dr. Dowdy says. “I think there’s every reason to believe the trend will continue to go in the right direction.”
Much of this has to do with the immunity we’ve been able to establish. “In the U.S., the vast majority of people have had at least two exposures to this virus, either through infection or vaccines,” he says. “There’s reason to believe that, over time, our bodies are going to learn to deal with this virus.”
What does that mean for us in the long run? Even though we may not be able to prevent its transmission, we probably can “prevent it from killing us,” Dr. Dowdy says.
Still, the virus poses a substantial risk in areas of the world that have not been widely vaccinated, such as sub-Saharan Africa. It also poses a threat in China, which just saw its first two COVID-19-related deaths since January 2021. So far, infection rates in China have been minuscule because, Dr. Dowdy says, the country has maintained very strict lockdown policies. Plus, he points out, “the vaccine they’ve been using is arguably less effective.”
And for people who are immunocompromised or otherwise more vulnerable than average, the threat and consequences of infection persist. For them, the answer to “is the pandemic over?” will remain a solid “no” for a while longer. They may even opt to wear masks indoors for some time.
What are signs that a pandemic is ending?
There’s no clear-cut data point that signals the end of a pandemic, according to a recent paper published in the medical journal The BMJ. There won’t be a single, specific day when we can declare the coronavirus pandemic over. In fact, it will likely only be obvious in hindsight.
Realistically, COVID-19 will gradually transition from pandemic to endemic status, a situation in which the disease is consistently present in the world but confined to a particular region, making transmission somewhat predictable and reducing or eliminating the need for broad societal interventions.
Other traditional indicators that a pandemic is over include economic and behavioral measures. When economic activity is no longer markedly affected by infection rates—for example, supply chain and labor issues are resolved, travel and tourism resume, and businesses are operating at pre-pandemic levels—then it’s a safe bet that the pandemic’s end is near. After all, the coronavirus pandemic has cost the world significantly, and a reversal of that signifies an ending pandemic.
Similarly, it’s a sign the pandemic is easing when the threat of infection is so low that individuals no longer adjust their social and economic behaviors.
“I think we are moving pretty quickly to a point where we can say the emergency phase of this pandemic is over,” Dr. Dowdy says. “Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are getting to a point that is tolerable in our society. We need to be prepared for the possibility of another wave, but that doesn’t mean we need to live our lives in fear until that happens.”
There’s another way to look at the potential end of the pandemic: “If we’re able to make it through a year with no waves, other than during the wintertime, with other respiratory viral infections, and we’re able to see that the number of deaths from COVID-19 is similar to other well-known respiratory infections, like the flu, it would be reasonable at that time to say we can move on from the pandemic,” he says.
What could a post-coronavirus world look like?
In ten or 15 years, when today’s small children are teenagers, they may not even remember the pandemic and will think of this as just another virus, along with the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (a common infection of the lungs and respiratory tract), and other coronaviruses, Dr. Dowdy predicts.
Today we’re all wondering, Is the pandemic over? But just as intriguing is the question of how the past two years will change the way we live, work, and play in the future. And that future is approaching quickly.
Our post-coronavirus lives will soon take on a pre-pandemic appearance, with many people returning to offices and schools. “People have realized a lot of work can be done from home, but there are some tasks for which being in person, in the office, is more efficient,” he says. “It won’t be the virtual world we’ve been living in the past two years.”
In addition to office-culture changes, there may be vaccination updates. We may need booster shots for new variants, though that remains to be seen. “So far, [existing] vaccines have been effective against most variants that have come along, but that may change in the future,” Dr. Dowdy says.
As for masks, while most of us would be happy to fling them off permanently, Dr. Dowdy says it’s possible we may always need them for public transit and other scenarios where people are tightly crowded. “I hope that we will be able to think about this from a rational risk-benefit perspective,” he says.
In other public spaces, we can probably expect a return to normalcy. “I am hopeful that we will get to a point where we don’t have to bend over backward, so to speak, to prevent transmission of this virus,” Dr. Dowdy says.
- David Dowdy, MD, faculty expert and epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
- The BMJ: “The end of the pandemic will not be televised”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “COVID Data Tracker Weekly Review”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “COVID Data Tracker”