SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – It’s been just about two years since the first COVID-19 case was reported in the United States. As surges spike and fade, many are wondering when we’ll be past this pandemic.
The simple answer for what ‘the end’ of COVID-19 will look like is that there won’t be an actual official end.
“The pandemic ends, in this case, with the virus becoming endemic,” Dr. Jeremy Cauwels, Chief Physician at Sanford Health, said. “So an endemic virus is a virus that lives with us all the time. Chicken pox never goes away. Kids can always get chicken pox. Influenza never goes away. It cycles, year to year, but it never disappears. And so an endemic virus is one that lives with us in some way shape or form.”
Doctors are hopeful the status of ‘endemic’ is inching closer.
“When you look back at history, at most pandemics, they do tend to end with a strain somewhat similar to omicron, which is highly contagious but overall slightly less severe or leads to less severe illnesses,” Dr. Kevin Post, Chief Medical Officer at Avera Medical Group, said. “So I think we’re hopeful that omicron is the strain or a similar strain to that and hopefully not, in the not-so-distant future.”
Cauwels says there is a list of things to check off to reach an endemic status.
“Number one you have to have a virus that’s freely circulating; that it’s doing a pretty good job of,” Cauwels said. “Number two, you got to quit seeing the ups and downs or the spikes. It’s just got to find some steady state. And then the other parts are actually up to us. Do we have ways to control it? So do we have vaccines and do we use them appropriately? And number two, do we have therapies that could affect the virus when we need to.”
Cauwels says both the monoclonal antibody treatments and anti-viral oral pills are important tools in the fight against COVID-19.
“What that does is move us from a place where we have to worry about people getting a new infection because we’re not sure we can treat it effectively to a place where we can turn this into something like the flu where if you get it, we have a pill for you to take and we know what to do for you to try to get you through it as best we can,” Cauwels said.
As for COVID-19 booster shots, both Cauwels and Post believe we’ll be seeing those again, or at least a variation of them.
“There are small trials being done of combination vaccines of coronavirus with influenza,” Post said. “And of course, like we do with the influenza vaccine, that would likely have to adapt through the years as the virus mutates. But I do think we’ll see some version of boosters versus an annual vaccine as we kind of continue to learn about this and sort this out in the future.”
And then comes the understanding of what happens next.
“I think one thing that we have to be very aware of is we don’t know all the complications yet of COVID-19 long-term such as on heart conditions, lung conditions,” Post said. “So I think we’ll continue to learn about almost that second phase of the effect of COVID-19 as we move forward. And also there’s been a delay in care of chronic disease, cancer screenings, et cetera. So we are going to have to, you know, catch up, you would say, in the medical field for patients’ preventative care as well.”
For Post and Cauwels, though, hope is out there.
“When people write history books, they’re going to write a chapter on the last two and a half, three years,” Cauwels said. “They’re going to write a chapter about what this was and kids and grandkids are going to ask us about the fact that we lived through this.”
“In looking back, I hope we can have learned from the situation,” Post said. “I hope we can have, once again, are more united as a people, as a nation. And I hope we can look back on it and say, ‘It was difficult but we learned some valuable lessons that we’ll take with us the rest of our lives.'”
Until we can look back on these years in reflection, though, there are still ways we can each help reach that endemic status.
“I think now, you know, as we move forward, what we’re trying to achieve is herd immunity with the cooperation of the public,” Post said. “And that can be natural immunity from having had a COVID-19 infection or, you know at best, ideally would be immunity from a vaccine plus the full booster series, which still seem to be the most effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalizations and death from COVID-19.”
“What I would tell people is for right now, the right thing to do is still be vaccinated and boosted,” Cauwels said.
Doctors in South Dakota have predicted the peak of the omicron surge is still weeks away.