The end of the pandemic may be in sight, but risks persist
As the third anniversary of Covid approaches, an infectious-disease expert looks ahead to the fourth year of the virus.
After nearly three years, 757 million cases and 6.85 million deaths, the end of the Covid-19 pandemic could be near.
The World Health Organization recently hinted that the world could finally exit the emergency phase of the pandemic this year, making Covid more manageable and less dangerous worldwide. At the same time, the Biden administration announced it would let the coronavirus public health emergency expire May 11, eliminating policies that mandate free tests, treatments and vaccines now that the pandemic is under better control.
But that doesn’t mean the virus is gone — we’re still grappling with the aftershocks of the disease. Premature deaths from Covid remain high. Thousands live with “long Covid.” A parade of new variants threatens progress against the virus. And Colorado will soon reach a grim milestone of 15,000 Covid deaths.
So what’s in store for the next year? RED interviewed infectious-disease expert Sheryl Zajdowicz, Ph.D., a professor in Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Biology, for answers and a peek into life after the pandemic.
The WHO has said the end of the emergency phase of the pandemic is in sight. Will life change much in the next phase?
As we progress into an endemic instead of a pandemic, hospitalization levels, disease severity and deaths will fall. Herd immunity from vaccination or previous infection will help to limit community transmission and reduce variant development. We’re already observing this trend. The virus will eventually be treated as a routine illness, like seasonal flu.
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Colorado has reached nearly 15,000 Covid-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. Who’s still at greatest risk and why?
Older adults are at greater risk of developing more severe symptoms, typically due to reduced immune responses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes anyone age 50 or older as an “older adult,” and there’s increasing risk in people over 65.
Other people are at high risk too: infants, individuals who are immunocompromised or have a weakened immune response and people with underlying health conditions like asthma, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. There are varying reasons why these people may be at increased risk — it’s dependent on the nature of the underlying health condition.
Speaking of variability, why has Covid-19 produced so many variants? It seems like there’s always a new variant du jour.
Mutations in viruses are quite common. When a virus enters your body, it replicates and spreads. As a virus replicates, its genes undergo random “copying errors,” or genetic mutations. This can lead to alterations in the virus’ surface proteins, like SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein, or other antigens. The more a virus circulates in a population of people, the more it can change.
As we’ve already observed, there are various variants of the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. But though future variants are expected, their development isn’t cause for alarm. We see mutations in flu each year as well, so it’s important to monitor for these identified variants.
Throughout the pandemic, people have had to make tough choices on how to protect themselves and others from Covid-19. How can people shield themselves?
There are plenty of precautions to take:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Stay home if you’re sick.
- Wash your hands and don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
- Cover coughs and sneezes.
- Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces. Get tested if you have symptoms.
- Stay up to date on vaccinations/boosters.
- Wear a mask following isolation from Covid, and wear a mask or respirator indoors if you may be exposed and are at high risk for severe illness.
What’s the outlook for those experiencing long Covid?
The outlook is unclear. There is no test for long Covid, and symptoms vary from person to person. Because these conditions vary, there is no definitive treatment.
How has our understanding of the virus’ long-term consequences changed since the first outbreak?
There is an understanding that long Covid is problematic in some, irrespective of the severity of the case. As a result of its persistent health impact, long Covid can now be considered a disability under multiple state and federal laws.
As an infectious-disease expert, what has surprised you most about the trajectory of this disease? What do you predict for the coming year?
The biggest surprise has been how unpredictable the virus and disease have been. While some aspects are predictable, others don’t follow what’s expected.
I predict we’ll continue to observe an ebb and flow in waves of Covid over the next year. However, the level of severity will be less, and hospitalizations and deaths will continue to decline.