With lockdowns, mask mandates, vaccine debates and over 6.9 million deaths worldwide, COVID-19 has held the world’s attention since January 2020, when it was declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). But the pandemic appears to be morphing into a different stage — one in which the disease becomes endemic.
In May 2023, the World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that COVID-19 was no longer a health emergency, but rather an ongoing health issue.
Dr. Carl Fichtenbaum, an infectious disease expert at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life: “Yes, we are moving to the endemic stage where COVID will be active with seasonal peaks in different countries. And it is likely to continue to evolve new strains as the virus tries to spread to the most people.”
What’s the difference between endemic and pandemic?
A pandemic is a disease outbreak, or epidemic, that is typically widespread — meaning, affecting multiple countries across the world — and is spreading among people, Dr. Andrea Love, immunologist, microbiologist and co-host of the “Unbiased Science” podcast, tells Yahoo Life. A pandemic is also unpredictable, meaning it’s spreading in a way that it cannot be contained adequately. Pandemics also typically lead to large-scale socioeconomic disruption, especially in the realm of health care, she points out.
A disease becomes endemic when it still exists within a population but isn’t spreading uncontrollably and has a high degree of predictability, explains Love. An endemic also tends to be less disruptive to society and the region’s economy, she adds.
Are we moving to an endemic stage in which COVID is more like the flu?
Experts have differing opinions on this, but many believe that COVID in the U.S. is shifting from a pandemic to endemic. Experts can’t say for sure how COVID-19 will look in the endemic phase and if it will require yearly shots like the flu. (It’s also worth noting that the virus that causes the flu and the one that causes COVID-19 are markedly different viruses.) “There is still a degree of unpredictability with COVID-19, so we are not quite there yet,” says Love.
However, WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said at a May press conference that we’re “coming to that point where we can look at COVID-19 in the same way we look at seasonal influenza — a threat to health, a virus that will continue to kill, but a virus that is not disrupting our society or disrupting our hospital system."
Since we haven’t fully exited the pandemic phase, experts say we may need more frequent formulation updates for vaccines — similar to the recently FDA-approved new COVID booster, which was recommended by the CDC on Sept. 12 — until the virus has more predictable patterns. Eventually, we may reach a point where an annual vaccine — possibly a combo flu/COVID-19 shot — may be the norm.
How concerned should people be about getting COVID-19 at this point?
A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that many Americans aren't concerned about the virus at all. However, hundreds of people are still dying from COVID every day, and experts say that people shouldn’t entirely let their guard down.
As experts point out, it’s an unpredictable disease that can be symptom free or may go on to cause a chronic infection, such as long COVID, which can lead to lifelong disability in some.
“COVID-19 is still a significant public health concern,” says Love. “We don’t want to encourage people to go out and get infected with SARS-CoV-2 — we know the virus can do damage to a variety of organ systems, even in people who consider themselves otherwise healthy.”
Experts still recommend the following steps to protect yourself and others from COVID, including:
Frequent handwashing: It helps protect against all kinds of germs, including the one that causes COVID-19
Using a mask when in a crowd: SARS-COV2 is an airborne virus and masks have been shown to limit spread.
Getting vaccinated: You should discuss your options with your health care provider, but generally, vaccinations help prevent the most severe forms of COVID and reduce death risk.
Testing for COVID and isolating early: If you’re not feeling well, take a COVID test to rule it out and isolate for at least five days if you’re positive. Doing this can help prevent the spread to your loved ones and others.
Seeking expert care if you test positive and feel ill: Fichtenbaum says that people above age 65 and those with existing health conditions have a higher risk of severe illness from COVID. For most people, he says, “This will feel like a bad cold or flu. They may be sick for two to four days and then gradually get better. But if it feels worse and you find it hard to breathe, move or speak, seek expert care promptly.”
Nsisong Asanga is a writer, public health physician and field epidemiologist.