Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States is still breaking records in hospital overcrowding and new cases.
The United States is logging nearly 800,000 cases a day, hospitals are starting to fray, and deaths have topped 850,000. Schools oscillate from remote to in-person learning, polarizing communities.
The vaccines are lifesaving for many, yet frustration mounts as the numbers of unvaccinated people in this country stays relatively stagnant (63% in the United States are fully vaccinated) and other parts of the world have seen hardly a single dose. Africa has the slowest vaccination rate among continents, with only 14% of the population receiving one shot, according to the New York Times tracker.
Effective vaccines and treatments that can keep people out of the hospital were developed at an astounding pace, and advances in tracking and testing – in both access and effectiveness – are starting to pay off.
Some experts say it’s possible that the raging Omicron surge will slow by late spring, providing some relief and maybe shifting the pandemic to a slower-burning endemic.
But other experts caution to keep our guard up, saying it’s time to settle into a “new normal” and upend the strategy for fighting COVID-19.
Time to change COVID thinking
Three former members of the Biden-Harris Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board wrote recently in JAMA that COVID-19 has now become one of the many viral respiratory diseases that health care providers and patients will manage each year.
The group of experts from the University of Pennsylvania, University of Minnesota, and New York University write that “many of the measures to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (for example, ventilation) will also reduce transmission of other respiratory viruses. Thus, policy makers should retire previous public health categorizations, including deaths from pneumonia and influenza or pneumonia, influenza, and COVID-19, and focus on a new category: the aggregate risk of all respiratory virus infections.”
Other experts, including Amesh Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Baltimore, have said it’s been clear since the early days of SARS-CoV-2 that we must learn to live with the virus because it “will be ever present for the remaining history of our species.”
But that doesn’t mean the virus will always have the upper hand. Although the United States has been reaching record numbers of hospitalizations in January, these hospitalizations differ from those of last year – marked by fewer extreme lifesaving measures, fewer deaths, and shorter hospital stays – caused in part by medical and therapeutic advances and in part to the nature of the Omicron variant itself.
One sign of progress, Dr. Adalja said, will be the widespread decoupling of cases from hospitalizations, something that has already happened in countries such as the United Kingdom.
“That’s a reflection of how well they have vaccinated their high-risk population and how poorly we have vaccinated our high-risk population,” he said.