Is the COVID-19 pandemic finally over?
Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, isn’t even ready to say the end is near.
“That’s an unanswerable question,” Fauci said during an interview on the “PBS NewsHour” Tuesday, adding that the United States, however, is not currently in a “pandemic phase” even though the virus continues to rage through other parts of the world.
“We are certainly right now in this country out of the pandemic phase,” he said. “Namely, we don’t have 900,000 new infections a day and tens and tens and tens of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths. We are at a low level right now.”
But Fauci said the virus is not going to be eradicated, and “if you look at the global situation, there’s no doubt this pandemic is still ongoing.” The doctor described a pandemic as “a widespread, throughout the world, infection that spreads rapidly among people.”
Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, said Fauci chose his words carefully.
“I think Dr. Fauci was very careful in how to phrase this phase of the pandemic. Because it isn’t over,” Kim said. He said most experts agree it’s too soon to say COVID-19 has become endemic, like the flu or other deadly diseases with more predictable outbreaks, because it’s still too erratic.
Gov. Spencer Cox recently moved Utah into what he called a “steady state’ response to the pandemic, treating COVID-19 like an endemic disease. But Kim said that could still be several years away, and even if COVID-19 is declared endemic, it will always be a threat.
“A lot of people equate endemicity to, ‘Oh, everything’s over. We never have to worry about COVID again.’ That’s not the case at all,” he said. “We’re going to have to remain forever vigilant over this. We’re never going to get to a point where we can just forget about it.”
The professor said too many people are looking for either a red or green light when it comes to dealing with COVID-19. The reality, he said, is that they’re going to have to remain ready to take precautions, like wearing masks or getting booster shots.
“We’re trying to kind of, I think, normalize this idea that look, it’s not either completely safe or not safe at all. There’s a huge gray area in between. We’ve got to start living in the gray areas,” Kim said, adding that COVID-19 is “not a disease that’s going to go away.”
Entering the control phase
Fauci went into more detail with the Washington Post Wednesday, saying the U.S. was in the “full-blown pandemic phase” last winter before entering what he called the “deceleration” phase. Now, he said, the nation is transitioning into the control phase — the same phase he’d suggested nearly a year ago was reachable within a few months.
But that was before the delta variant of COVID-19 hit, making Utah and the Intermountain West the country’s hot spot for the virus last fall. Then, omicron struck, driving case counts to record levels in January. Currently, so-called “stealth omicron” and its subvariants are blamed for cases climbing once again, especially back East.
While cases are also rising in China, where harsh lockdowns have been imposed to contain outbreaks in Shanghai and other cities, the European Union announced Wednesday it was moving out of the “emergency phase” of the pandemic, The New York Times reported.
Still, the European Union is readying for a possible new wave of cases in the fall by focusing on vaccinations, testing and virus monitoring, according to the newspaper. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the union’s executive arm, the European Commission, said it was crucial to stay vigilant against the virus.
Fauci said on the “PBS NewsHour” that COVID-19 vaccinations will be needed “intermittently,” possibly annually, to keep the virus at bay. He said he wasn’t “terribly surprised” at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates showing nearly 60% of Americans have been infected with the virus, including about 75% of children.
“I think it’s important for people to realize that, because, although immunity following infection and recovery does not last indefinitely, it does give a degree, variable degrees of protection against severe disease if you get reinfected,” Fauci said.
With about two-thirds of the county vaccinated, Fauci said that’s “a rather substantial proportion of the United States population that has some degree of immunity that’s residual.” Only about half of those vaccinated have gotten booster shots, even though a second is available to those who are older or have certain medical conditions.
In Utah, less than 62% of the entire population is fully vaccinated, meaning it has been weeks or more since they received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or a single-dose Johnson & Johnson, and 28% of all Utahns have also gotten a booster dose, according to the Utah Department of Health’s weekly update.