How will the pandemic end? Experts say COVID-19 could act similarly to the flu if it reaches endemic status. This story is part of a series where we look at the ways COVID-19 has changed our lives and how it will continue to affect public health in 2022.Key TakeawaysPublic health experts hope that Omicron is indicative of future mutations: more
This story is part of a series where we look at the ways COVID-19 has changed our lives and how it will continue to affect public health in 2022.
One question is on a lot of our minds: When will the pandemic end? As the country reels from a lack of testing supplies and hospital beds in the face of the Omicron surge, the end seems even more distant than before.
But public health officials see a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
Although the Omicron variant is highly transmissible, its milder symptoms are a good sign, according to Jeni Stolow, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of instruction at Temple University who works in public health, and infectious disease outbreak response.
"From a virus development point of view, this is as good as it gets," Stolow told Verywell. "A virus wants to reproduce and never actually wants to kill its hosts."
Stolow explained that viruses want to evolve to be mild enough to survive. She cites the common cold as an example. Because of its highly transmissible nature and relatively mild symptoms, the common cold survives in a nearly perpetual state of reproduction and spread. A more potent virus that kills the host dies along with it.
If the virus continues to mutate to produce a milder infection, then with the aid of vaccines and continued public health measures such as masking, hand washing, and social distancing, deaths and hospitalizations could plummet. So, in other words, we're aiming to lessen the dangers from COVID-19, not eradicate it.
Stolow is confident of one thing—COVID isn't going anywhere.
"I don't think there's going to be an 'end' to the pandemic because it radically changed the way that we interact with sickness and wellness and travel," Stolow said. "It's more that there will be an acceptance that vaccines will be routine, testing will be routine, masking if you're sick will be routine."
Instead of expecting complete eradication of the virus, she says that she hopes for decreased death counts.
Anthony Fauci, MD, the top White House medical adviser, agrees. On January 18, 2022, Fauci stated that the pandemic likely won't end with the elimination of the virus entirely. He believes it's more likely that a less severe strain of the virus will become dominant, making it endemic.
An endemic disease is always present in a particular population or region. Some examples of endemic diseases include the flu and HIV.
While viruses want to mutate into forms that allow them to spread and thrive, Stolow says, there's no proof that COVID-19 will continue on its more mild trajectory. As the Delta variant proved, it is just as likely to mutate into a more severe form.
Either way, awareness of techniques to combat infectious diseases such as contact tracing, masking, and testing will help in the future for any pandemic.
While many have compared COVID-19 to influenza, Stolow says that the ramifications of COVID-19 make it a more dangerous virus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 20,000 people died from influenza during 2019-2020. COVID-19 currently has a much higher death rate, but it also has the potential for long-term effects.
Studies have found that some people may experience lingering effects after the flu, but the course of illness is much milder in comparison. The debilitating impacts of long COVID makes it a more serious virus for the foreseeable future.
Additionally, while influenza has a myriad of different strains, they all manifest with the same set of symptoms. As Omicron has proven, the telltale signs of COVID-19 infection continue to morph.
Pandemic fatigue is high right now. Experts say that life will never be as it was before the pandemic, especially when it comes to public awareness of infectious diseases. While the pandemic may not be over just yet, the newest mutations hint that it may be evolving to be a virus that can be endured with yearly boosters and better safety precautions.
So, how much longer will the pandemic last? While there's no way to know how long it will be until COVID-19 is considered truly endemic, Stolow says that the public health response is funded through 2024.
Since COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus, its mutation track doesn't have the same history that influenza does. With a long history and geographical centers that help monitor how the influenza virus is changing, the CDC can formulate a vaccine that hopefully treats the dominant strains.
Until that is established with COVID-19, public health officials have to make do with the tools that we have: hand washing; masking; social distancing; contact tracing; our initial vaccines, designed to treat the original strain of the virus; and boosters plus potential variant-specific shots.
The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.