Are we out of the COVID-19 pandemic phase in the United States?
Dr. Anthony FauciTrusted Source seems to think we are.
The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told PBS Newshour that although new cases have slowly started to rise in recent weeks, they are no longer near what they were during the Delta and Omicron variant surges. He also noted hospitalizations and deaths are not increasing.
“We are at a low level right now. So, if you’re saying are we out of the pandemic phase in this country? We are,” Fauci said.
Officials in the European Union reportedly are thinking along the same lines.
A document obtained by the Reuters news service indicates European leaders are preparing for a post-emergency phase of the pandemic. Those leaders plan to focus on testing and monitoring COVID-19 cases.
These assessments come as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reportsTrusted Source that nearly 60 percent of people in the United States as well as nearly 75 percent of children have contracted COVID-19 since the pandemic began, lending support to arguments that the country may be edging closer to herd immunity.
Vice President Kamala Harris is among the latest to test positive for the novel coronavirus, although she reports having no symptoms of the disease. She is in isolation to help avoid spreading the illness.
Caution from experts
Does all this mean we have reached an endemic stage for COVID-19 the United States?
Maybe not, say some experts.
They point out that even if today’s numbers plateau at current levels, COVID-19 would still continue to cause more illness and death than even the worst flu season.
“Even if we hold steady at those numbers and not have more surges, [current] daily deaths represent [more than 100,000] deaths a year from COVID-19,” said Susan Cheng, Ph.D., an associate dean for public health practice & diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans.
“A bad flu year is around 40,000 deaths,” she noted.
The reported number of new COVID-19 cases has recently crept upward to more than 40,000 per day, but hospitalizations remain at about 11,000 nationwide while deaths continue to decline, falling to about 330 per day.
“We are definitely seeing subvariants of Omicron that are more transmissible and less severe, so I think we will continue to see growth in cases for some time without large increases in hospitalizations,” Jennifer Horney, Ph.D., founding director and professor in the epidemiology program at the University of Delaware, told Healthline.
Despite the lower numbers, experts say COVID-19 remains a deadly illness that will have to be confronted year after year.
“The decline in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the U.S. since the winter Omicron surge has been great news from a public health standpoint,” Dr. Lisa Doggett, senior medical director for HGS AxisPoint Health, told Healthline. “But contrary to what many people think, the pandemic isn’t over. Case rates and hospitalizations have actually crept up again in the U.S. over the last two weeks or so, and other parts of the world are seeing high numbers of cases.”
Doing the math
From the latest peak in early February when more than 2,600 Americans were still dying from COVID-19 illness on a daily basis, the average daily death rate has steadily declined to its current level of slightly more than 300 per day.
The weekly moving average of COVID-19 hospitalizations has plummeted more than 92 percent from its peak in January to its 12,000 level today.
Even with simple math, however, those seemingly low figures translate into more than 110,000 deaths annually and more than 580,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations.
By comparison, estimated influenza deaths in the United States have rangedTrusted Source from about 10,000 to 50,000 annually the past decade while hospitalizations have varied from 140,000 to 800,000 annually, depending on the severity of the flu season.
“When compared to other infectious diseases, COVID is in a class of its own,” Brooks B. Gump, PhD, MPH, a professor of public health at Falk College at Syracuse University in New York, told Healthline.
Gump and other experts say it’s far from certain that the current decline in severe COVID-19 cases will continue.
“I would push back on the notion that hospitalizations and deaths have plateaued,” said Gump. “They are the trailing indicators, and case counts are rising again. Unfortunately, we will have a very dynamic situation for the foreseeable future – with infection rates and case-fatality rates varying as a function of new variants [that vary] in transmissibility, severity, and resistance to vaccines, vaccine and booster effectiveness and coverage, and adherence to guidelines on masking and distancing.”
“The idea that we can just set a policy and walk away is a pipe dream. If we want to keep some control of these rates, we need to modify our approach each time the situation on the ground shifts,” he added.
Looking to the future
The latest strains of COVID-19 seem to cause less severe illness, but there’s no guarantee that the same will be true of future variants, experts said.
Vaccination, which research shows has played a major role in the reduction of severe COVID-19 illness, will continue to be a front-line defense against emergent coronavirus variants, said Doggett.
During 2020 and 2021, COVID-19 killedTrusted Source more than 840,000 people in the United States, exceeding the death toll of the 1918-19 flu pandemic that killedTrusted Source an estimated 675,000 Americans in its first two years.
Compared to those figures, spring 2022 may seem relatively benign.
“People in the U.S. are certainly deeply affected by prevention fatigue,” Cheng told Healthline. “They are tired of wearing masks and testing and worrying about the virus. They have made a conscious decision to move on and move forward without the virus actually dissipating yet.”
“However, numbers are still too high for what should be tolerated as seasonal viral loads,” she said. “Still too many people are dying each day for this to be considered an acceptable loss from a preventable infectious disease.”
“The current death counts of about 350 per day will result in over 125,000 additional deaths in the next year,” Dr. David Cutler, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Healthline. “Is that acceptable?”