The End Is Near: The New Pandemic Data Looks Promising
By Jen Christensen
While the pandemic is not over, experts say the US may be in for, at the very least, a "near normal" spring and summer, based on new US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
"I think the move from pandemic to endemic appears to be accelerating," said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor in the division of infectious disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
According to the CDC's updated data on Covid-19 community levels, the number of counties with "high" Covid-19 levels dropped from about 1,200 on February 24 to 472 on March 3.
The CDC recently switched how it measures community levels.
The agency's old metrics looked mostly at infection levels. As the US has moved to more of a manageable phase, infection alone didn't capture the full impact of Covid-19 and the level of restrictions needed. Now, the CDC measures those levels by including rates of infection and hospital capacity.
Using the new metrics, CDC data show more than 90% of US residents live in a location with low or medium Covid-19 community levels.
An analysis of the data finds only 7% of the US population is in a county with high Covid-19 community levels.
"Rates of cases are not at a very low rate, but they are low enough and hospital capacity is good enough that it's appropriate to roll back many of the restrictions. Looking right now at these figures, for spring and summer, there's a lot of hope," said Amber D'Souza, an epidemiologist with Johns Hopkins University. "This would not have looked this good two or three months ago in the middle of the surge."
In other words, in large swaths of the country, the metrics mean there's a significantly lower risk you'll get sick from Covid-19.
The surge is ending...but?
"This means that the current surge is abating, which is amazing news," said epidemiologist Syra Madad, senior director of the system-wide special pathogens program at NYC Health + Hospital. "But," and having lived through the pandemic the last couple of years, you knew there would be a "but."
"I think it's really important to state that when people look at community transmission levels as being low, that does not mean that it's zero," Madad said.
In areas considered to have high Covid-19 community levels, people need to take the usual pandemic precautions, she said. In areas at low or medium levels, masks and physical distance practices may be safely dropped. But only for some, not all people.
"Obviously with low levels of the virus circulating in the community, there's a decreased chance of you coming into contact with somebody that might be infectious, but that doesn't mean that your risk is zero," Madad said.
Masks and caution may still be necessary if a person is in a high-risk category for severe disease, or if they live with a young child who is still not eligible to be vaccinated or if they live with someone who is immunocompromised, and a vaccine doesn't protect them as well as a healthy individual.
"We know an end of a surge does not mean an end of the pandemic," Madad said.
Deaths from Covid-19 have dropped 11% from last week, but the US is still averaging 1,554 new deaths each day, according to Johns Hopkins University. It's much worse than a disease like the flu, the experts said
"There are many people dying every day from coronavirus. It remains a very serious infectious disease. But we have made tremendous progress," D'Souza said.
Some of the progress comes from the tools the country has developed to manage the pandemic. Tests and therapeutics have become easier to access and the Biden administration promises more are on the way. But, the experts caution, even as cases decline, people still need to watch for signs that they are sick with Covid-19. Therapeutics only really work if a person who is sick gets access to them fast.
"You know whether it's monoclonal antibodies or medication, if you think you're sick, you still need to get tested right away," said Dr. Claudia Hoyen, the director of pediatric infection control at UH Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland. "It's also important to remember that there are still people who are vulnerable to severe disease."
Still, 45% of the US population is unvaccinated, according to the CDC, and about 3% of the population -- around 9 million people -- are immunocompromised and vulnerable to severe disease, regardless of where they live.
"Right now we're in a really great place and we should take advantage of that, but we should not forget those who are vulnerable and who should take the appropriate precautions," Hoyen said.
Covid-19 is unlikely to be eradicated any time soon. People still need to be flexible and put on masks and practice physical distancing again if Covid-19 case levels get high in their area, the experts said.
But, if another variant doesn't come along and evades existing vaccines and therapeutics, the new CDC numbers may mean the end of the pandemic stage of Covid-19 is near.
"Clearly, it isn't over yet. There are still people we need to protect," Hoyen said. "But hopefully, maybe, just maybe this is the beginning of the end. Wouldn't that be wonderful?"