When is this finally going to end? That’s the question on many minds after a year of living through the COVID-19 pandemic.
But public health experts say we do have an answer, and you’re not going to like it: COVID-19 is never going to end. It now seems poised to become an endemic disease — one that is always a part of our environment, no matter what we do.
“We’ve been told that this virus will disappear. But it will not,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and medical director of the National Foundation For Infectious Diseases, tells CBS News.
“We need to control it. We need to diminish its impact. But it’s going to be around hassling us for the foreseeable future. And by that I mean — years.”
The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. A year later, the virus has infected 118 million people worldwide and killed over 2.6 million, including more than 530,000 Americans, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
At the same time, several effective COVID vaccines were developed at an unprecedented pace and have already been administered to nearly 330 million people worldwide.
But researchers say there’s simply no track record of infectious diseases being completely eradicated, and everything about COVID-19 shows that it will be no different.
“The more infectious a microbe is, the harder it is to control,” Dr. Tom Frieden, the CEO of Resolve To Save Lives and a former CDC director, tells CBS News. “COVID is very challenging to control, and the new variants suggest that we may end up playing kind of a game of cat and mouse.”
Prior to COVID, people were already used to living with endemic diseases. The flu is one example. Measles is another. Both continue to spread and kill people every year despite decades of vaccination and containment.
Even the virus that causes COVID-19 is just a new type of coronavirus; other coronaviruses had long been circulating and in some cases could cause the common cold. COVID itself has already gone through mutations that made it more contagious and potentially deadlier.
The only infectious disease in modern history to be eliminated worldwide was smallpox, which the World Health Organization declared eradicated in 1980. But that was nearly 200 years after the creation of the first smallpox vaccine. Smallpox also spread relatively slowly, and people who had it developed a distinctive rash, making the disease easier to identify and control.
The novel coronavirus, meanwhile, is highly contagious while also causing many asymptomatic infections. You can’t look at someone and know whether they have the virus. COVID-19 has also proved to spread to animals as well as humans, with infections confirmed in tigers, gorillas, apes, minks, cats and dogs.
Scientists say all of this makes the virus essentially impossible to control.
“It’s pretty unrealistic to think that we can eliminate a virus from both the human population and from its natural reservoirs,” Dr. Anita McElroy of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine tells CBS News.
She adds that since many people will choose not to get vaccinated — either for medical reasons or out of personal opposition to the vaccine — the world will always have “pockets of the population where the virus continues to spread and be susceptible.”
But doctors say that just because COVID is here to stay doesn’t mean it will disrupt our lives as much as it has in the past year. Vaccination and containment measures will eventually get the pandemic under control, potentially turning COVID into another disease we simply learn to live with.
Schaffner points out that the flu remains a serious threat — infecting millions of Americans and killing tens of thousands every year — and yet it has become so familiar that many people don’t even bother getting vaccinated for it every year.
“Could it be down the road that we become so familiar with COVID that we develop a certain nonchalance about it also?” he says. “Yes. We tend to do that in the United States.”
Schaffner says it would be best to give up the idea of going “back to normal,” and instead settle in for the “new normal” where COVID continues shaping our lives.
COVID vaccinations could become an annual ritual for millions. Masks might remain commonplace for the elderly and people with underlying conditions. Your family celebrations might be shaped by who’s vaccinated, while more vulnerable people only join by Zoom.
“The third, fourth and fifth years of COVID should not be anywhere close to as awful as the first one was,” he says. But in this new normal, “many of us will no longer be quite as carefree as we used to be.”