When is the pandemic “over”? In the early days of 2020, we envisioned it ending with the novel coronavirus going away entirely. When this became impossible, we hoped instead for elimination: If enough people got vaccinated, herd immunity might largely stop the virus from spreading. When this too became impossible, we accepted that the virus would still circulate but imagined that it could become, optimistically, like one of the four coronaviruses that cause common colds or, pessimistically, like something more severe, akin to the flu.
Instead, COVID has settled into something far worse than the flu. When President Joe Biden declared this week, “The pandemic is over. If you notice, no one’s wearing masks,” the country was still recording more than 400 COVID deaths a day—more than triple the average number from flu.
This shifting of goal posts is, in part, a reckoning with the biological reality of COVID. The virus that came out of Wuhan, China, in 2019 was already so good at spreading—including from people without symptoms—that eradication probably never stood a chance once COVID took off internationally. “I don’t think that was ever really practically possible,” says Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist at Columbia. In time, it also became clear that immunity to COVID is simply not durable enough for elimination through herd immunity. The virus evolves too rapidly, and our own immunity to COVID infection fades too quickly—as it does with other respiratory viruses—even as immunity against severe disease tends to persist. (The elderly who mount weaker immune responses remain the most vulnerable: 88 percent of COVID deaths so far in September have been in people over 65.) With a public weary of pandemic measures and a government reluctant to push them, the situation seems unlikely to improve anytime soon. Trevor Bedford, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, estimates that COVID will continue to exact a death toll of 100,000 Americans a year in the near future. This too is approximately three times that of a typical flu year.
I keep returning to the flu because, back in early 2021, with vaccine excitement still fresh in the air, several experts told my colleague Alexis Madrigal that a reasonable threshold for lifting COVID restrictions was 100 deaths a day, roughly on par with flu. We largely tolerate, the thinking went, the risk of flu without major disruptions to our lives. Since then, widespread immunity, better treatments, and the less virulent Omicron variant have together pushed the risk of COVID to individuals down to a flu-like level. But across the whole population, COVID is still killing many times more people than influenza is, because it is still sickening so many more people.
Bedford told me he estimates that Omicron has infected 80 percent of Americans. Going forward, COVID might continue to infect 50 percent of the population every year, even without another Omicron-like leap in evolution. In contrast, flu sickens an estimated 10 to 20 percent of Americans a year. These are estimates, because lack of testing hampers accurate case counts for both diseases, but COVID’s higher death toll is a function of higher transmission. The tens of thousands of recorded cases—likely hundreds of thousands of actual cases every day—also add to the burden of long COVID.
The challenge of driving down COVID transmission has also become clearer with time. In early 2021, the initially spectacular vaccine-efficacy data bolstered optimism that vaccination could significantly dampen transmission. Breakthrough cases were downplayed as very rare. And they were—at first. But immunity to infection is not durable against common respiratory viruses. Flu, the four common-cold coronaviruses, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and others all reinfect us over and over again. The same proved true with COVID. “Right at the beginning, we should have made that very clear. When you saw 95 percent…
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