A recent poll reveals that 1 in 3 Americans believe the pandemic is in fact over. With much of the global population having packed away their masks, and returned back to what is considered “normal life,” it would be easy to reach that conclusion. Unfortunately, that conclusion is not only incorrect, but it is also dangerously incorrect. Although cases have fallen dramatically from their once record-breaking highs, we continue to have thousands of new COVID-19 infections each day, hundreds of which result in death. Of note, new cases are particularly common in children of all ages in school. I have seen this first hand with many cases every week at the schools attended by my children (all of whom wear well-fitted masks indoors).
In fact, a recent report from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) predicts daily global COVID-19 infections will gradually increase to about 18.7 million by February 2023. The current average is 16.7 million cases per day.
So why is the pandemic still ongoing? What information is leading scientists to predict a continued increase in COVID-19 cases over the foreseeable future?
How We Know The Pandemic Isn’t Over Yet and Why
According to The International Epidemiology Association’s Dictionary of Epidemiology, a pandemic is, “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people.” One of the most obvious ways we are able to tell the pandemic is still prevalent is the previously mentioned increased number of global infection cases, along with many patients being hospitalized. We are still seeing consistent outbreaks of the virus, in what has now become several different variants, circulating around the world. This is compounded by the concurrent spread of influenza and other respiratory viruses such as RSV.
Vaccines offer us the most hopeful path out of the pandemic. Unfortunately, another major reason behind the aforementioned increased infection predictions is the current lack of vaccine equity. This will only lead to the creation of more and more variants of the virus. These new variants can be widely unpredictable, and although some have been labeled as “mild,” they still come with their own set of dangerous consequences. For example, the Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant may be considered less deadly overall, however it can still result in serious long-term health complications, illness, and even death, especially in unvaccinated individuals. We generally have been measuring the prevalence of COVID-19 by the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, but the greatest concern may be the growing number of Long COVID cases in patients of all ages – the shift from acute to chronic COVID-19.
Vaccine inequality is due in large part to vaccine hoarding in wealthy countries. This report from ONE.org reveals that twice as many people who live in wealthier nations have received a booster shot compared to those in lesser developed areas. It also states that at the current rate, it will take over ten years for these parts of the population to reach vaccination rates comparable to those in higher-income locations. Further exacerbating the problem is the practice of pharmaceutical companies to allow higher-income countries to place a claim on large vaccine quantities before others could access them. This further perpetuates the problem, leaving millions unvaccinated and vulnerable to infection.
Against the advice of most knowledgeable scientists and researchers across the world, most COVID-19 restrictions surrounding testing and isolation, as well as mask-wearing have either been lessened or lifted altogether. Restrictions have been reinforced in certain areas of the world during major outbreaks of the virus, but in areas such as North America and the UK, they are primarily gone. These changes have also made free or low-cost testing less accessible (if not non-existent), leading to even further spread. The availability of easy-to-use home antigen tests has made a significant difference in some communities, but the tests are not inexpensive in the U.S. and require compliance.
These lifted restrictions have had a significant impact on the spread of the virus. With a large percentage of our population back in offices, classrooms, restaurants, and other close quarters, the virus has had (and continues to have) endless opportunities to spread and mutate. As previously mentioned, this increased infection rate could potentially lead to a deadlier, even more contagious variant of the virus, setting us back to where we were at the height of the pandemic.
Misinformation has contributed to COVID-19 and its ability to spread and spread quickly, since the beginning of the pandemic. The misuse of social media, the internet, and other communication platforms has largely facilitated the spread of this misinformation. Unfortunately, these tools have been used to perpetuate dangerous ideas that inevitably resulted in the rejection of face masks, vaccines, and the use of medicines with scant scientific support, ultimately raising morbidity and mortality.
Many politicians and government leaders have also contributed to the spread of misinformation. While statements are not always made with mal-intent, they can be equally as dangerous as those that are. For example, this past September (two months before the mid-term elections in the U.S.), there was what I would describe as a politically motivated Presidential statement declaring the pandemic was over. This statement led to significant complications in U.S public-health efforts against COVID-19. The statement was made at the same time as public health officials were pushing citizens to get their next booster shot, causing further confusion about whether vaccinations are truly needed or not. Some politicians then used the statement to argue against the mandatory vaccination policies currently in place for federally funded programs and our military. This line of thinking is becoming more and more widespread, regardless of the fact that the virus has killed over 200,000 people this year alone.
What Can You Do To Protect Yourself From COVID-19
At this point in time, we can’t be sure when the pandemic will end. In the meantime, it’s important to continue doing all you can to protect yourself and those around you. It is highly recommended that you:
- Continue to stay up-to-date on your COVID-19 vaccinations (primary set and subsequent boosters, including variant-specific forms).
- Continue to wear a well-fitted mask when indoors, traveling via public transportation, or while in any other crowded setting (especially on airplanes).
- Know that just because you are not required to wear a mask, does not mean it’s safe to go without one.
- Host gatherings outside whenever possible. If infection rates are rising in your particular community, reschedule plans for a later date.
- Try to avoid close contact with others at any gatherings you do attend.
- Wash or sanitize your hands before eating or touching your face.
- Get tested when you have COVID-19-related symptoms. Isolate as appropriate if you receive positive results and do not return to work or school until you have tested negative with rapid tests (ideally two consecutive days).
- Stay educated on the topic. Look to trusted scientists and sources when looking for guidance on the most effective COVID-19 protective measures.
An easy way to remember the key points in COVID-19 protections is to “Avoid the 3Cs”; closed doors, crowded spaces, and close contact. For more information on COVID-19, check out this related article from my blog: The Journey of the COVID-19 Vaccine.