While the emergence of omicron has changed the path from “pandemic” to “endemic” that is not to say the world is back to square one.
After almost 2 years of being in a pandemic, there is no doubt that many are wondering when, if ever, we will be back to normal.
The omicron rates are on the rise but there is some good news as well – experts agree that the pandemic will eventually come to an end in spite of the new COVID strain being much more transmissible than the ones that came before it.
However, we are not exactly going to totally eradicate the virus but instead, we will most likely see it change from the current, pandemic phase, to an endemic one.
What this means is that COVID will continue to circulate throughout populations for many years to come, the main difference being that it will become much easier to manage instead of bringing the whole world to a halt – kind of like the flu coming back seasonally!
For any viral disease to be classed as an endemic, the rate of infections should stabilize more or less throughout the years instead of showing worrying and sudden spikes like COVID-19 has been doing.
Eleanor Murray, a Boston University epidemiologist explained that “A disease is endemic if the reproductive number is stably at one. That means that one infected person, on average, infects one other person.”
Unfortunately, we are not even close to that at this point.
The really contagious omicron strain means that every single infected person is able to infect more than just one other person which in turn, has led to the number of cases exploding globally.
This development comes after many scientists were saying back in the fall that the delta variant would be the last big worry of the pandemic before it would finally become endemic.
Sadly, that was not the case as just before Thanksgiving, omicron was discovered in South Africa for the first time, spreading really quickly on all continents afterward.
Nowadays, the outlook on the future of this virus is more uncertain than ever so how should we perceive the direction of the pandemic in the new year?
Furthermore, how should omicron influence our decisions every day as we try to limit the risks of infection?
Does omicron mean the endemicity stage is farther from our reach or does it actually mean that it will speed up the path to it by infecting more of the population faster and allowing the development of natural immunity to set in quicker?
About this, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada by the name of Angela Rasmussen, mentioned “That is really the million-dollar question. It’s really hard to say right now.”
This is the case mainly because endemicity is not only about getting the virus’ reproductive number down to just one.
That is actually the bare minimum for it to be classified as an endemic but in reality, there are some other factors that come into play as well, including the hospitalization and death rates and the burdening of the health care system.
The availability of different treatments that can reduce the number of people getting ill is an important element as well.
Basically, a virus is considered endemic when health experts, governmental bodies as well as the general public finally decide that the impact of it is no longer an active crisis.
But since the surge of omicron has led to stricter precautions being reimposed, it is quite clear that we are all still in crisis mode.
Rasmussen noted that “so much depends on the burden it’ll place on the health care system. And that is going to be different from community to community.”
Despite the fact that omicron has generally been causing milder symptoms than the variants before it, the increase in cases can still lead to a significant rise in hospitalizations and deaths.
The health care system will undoubtedly continue to struggle with handling the number of patients which is why Rasmussen is convinced that “omicron has the potential to delay endemicity.”
With all of that being said, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, Joshua Michaud, also believes there are some hopeful things we should keep in mind as well: “The incredible number of infections is building up population level immunity. That will be crucial in terms of muting future waves.”
Michaud also mentioned that aside from omicron building some more immunity amongst people, vaccines and boosters can also lead to “a significant immunity wall that’s being built that is a wall to the variants we have seen already. There could be yet another variant which could evade immunity later down the road.”
Some scientists believe that getting infected with omicron might not cause as much cross-protection against other variants but a small study did still show some positive signs regardless.
Speaking of, Ramussen stated that “the key determinant” of the pandemic’s end is how long it takes for vaccines to be made easily available all over the world in addition to actually somehow combating the problem of vaccine hesitancy.
At this point, it appears that the planet is not getting vaccinated fast enough to stop the virus from continuing to mutate into more serious forms.
“If only a really small proportion of people are getting access to vaccines, we’re just going to keep playing variant whack-a-mole indefinitely,” Rasmussen explained.
Meanwhile, there is another solution that will hopefully help – the creation of new treatments such as Pfizer’s paxlovid which was approved not too long ago by the Food and Drug Administration.
Another medicine now FDA approved is Merck’s molnupiravir.
Michaud said that “Very important in the context of endemicity is the antiviral pills. If we have those tools, we are looking at a very different state going into 2022. People should not feel like we are back to square one.”
While we’re not back to square one like in 2020, it still makes a lot of sense to bring back some of the preventive measures now that omicron is here.
We do have more knowledge on how the virus works now and we have been able to make effective vaccines, masks, treatments as well as quick tests.
Furthermore, we are now well aware that a strict lockdown is not the best for people’s mental health and for the general economy.
Of course, back in 2020, that measure made a lot of sense since there was really nothing else we had to fight off COVID-19 but nowadays, experts in the United States do not advise it anymore.
Instead, they encourage taking more precautions than before the emergence of omicron.
Bob Wachter for instance, the chair of the department of medicine at the University of California San Francisco, changed his mind from being super cautious about the virus to taking some calculated risks such as eating at restaurants and even hosting a 300-attendee medical conference in person!
Now that omicron is bringing the number of cases up, however, Wachter is more cautious once more.
He wrote on his Twitter that “I see the next few months as a time to fortify one’s safety behaviors.”
Michaud also agrees that it is time to take more risks than before.
“I had taken my foot off the brakes in terms of my personal behavior. But I have now started to put it on again. I canceled plans to go to New Jersey to visit my family over Christmas. I am avoiding more indoor environments. As of now, it makes a lot of sense to me to take some additional steps to prevent yourself and those around you from getting infected.”
But after the current omicron wave passes, Michaud believes we’ll be back to taking some more relaxed precautious once again.
He believes that the omicron variant is likely to peak between mid and late January in the United States with cases declining significantly next month.
Rasmussen has also been changing her behavior since the emergence of omicron but she did stress that it’s not as bad as going back to the beginning of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 when everyone needed to go into lockdown.
She mentioned that she canceled all her international flights over the winter holidays but still felt comfortable enough to go to a colleague’s house to celebrate Christmas together due to the fact that they were both vaccinated and had received their boosters.
Not only that but they were extra careful by taking rapid tests and making sure they had great ventilation inside.
“We have a lot more tools at our disposal now for dealing with this than we did in March 2020,” she stressed.