There is a stark contrast between the still-high U.S. COVID numbers—more than 130,000 people infected and 2,000 killed daily—and the laid-back behavior.
States, encouraged by a declining number of COVID cases after the huge recent surge due to Omicron, are dropping mask mandates. Meanwhile, companies are asking employees to return to the office and concerts are back in full force.
It all raises an obvious question: Is the pandemic over? The answer depends on who you ask.
On Wednesday, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Rochelle Wolensky said she was considering easing mask wearing, as Omicron cases wane. “We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing, when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen,” she said.
In Europe, many countries have already dropped mask mandates and social distancing as they shift from treating the disease as a stoppable pandemic to one that is a permanent reality, to one degree or another.
However, the World Health Organization gave a more cautious outlook. “We need to be careful about interpreting too much this downward trend [in cases],” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO COVID-19 technical lead, said on Wednesday. She said the bigger concern was the increase in reported deaths worldwide from COVID-19 for the sixth week in a row.
WHO’s emergencies chief Mike Ryan, cited “another important observation,” finding that in five of the six regions the WHO covers, the percentage of deaths increased while the number of reported positive cases have dropped.
“When you see that trend epidemiologically, you ask, ‘Is that real?’” he says.
Is it the end or are we just calling for it?
The White House’s chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, previously said that the U.S. is exiting its full-blown first phase of the pandemic and that the worst may be behind us.
This aligns with previous reports by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which found that 73% of Americans have some form of immunity to Omicron. That number takes into account that half of all Americans have received booster shots while around 80 million people—a likely underreported figure—have had confirmed COVID cases, both of which prevent and shorten future illnesses and better protect society from further COVID-19 disruptions.
Many health experts say the loosening of COVID restrictions is probably due to rising COVID fatigue, in which people are tired of mandates, lockdowns, and anxiety-inducing daily case and death numbers. “In the United States, we’ve normalized a very high death toll,” Anne Sosin, a fellow at Dartmouth College’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for public policy, told CNBC. “Ironically, it’s prevented us from being able to return to any sort of ‘normal.’”
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of WHO said, “in some countries, high vaccine coverage, combined with the lower severity of Omicron, is driving a false narrative that the pandemic is over,” He continued, “At the same time, low vaccine coverage and low testing rates in other countries are creating the ideal conditions for new variants to emerge.”
There is a consensus among experts that new COVID variants will soon emerge that may or may not be more virulent. Since the pandemic started with the Alpha variant, we’ve had major outbreaks of Delta and Omicron.
“The tough thing about COVID that we’ve learned over and over again is that there is no crystal ball to tell us what’s coming next,” Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and associate dean at the Brown University School of Public Health, previously told Fortune.
The WHO has warned the next COVID variant will be more infectious than Omicron, and it may be more deadly. “The next variant of concern will be more fit, and what we mean by that is it will be more transmissible because it will have to overtake what is currently circulating,” Van Kerkhove, said in January. “The big question is whether or not future variants will be more or less severe.”
As Dr. Gregory Poland, head of Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, previously told Fortune,
“The absolute truth of the matter is no one knows.”
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