In many ways, American life is returning to normalcy: Masks are no longer required in many locations, schools and universities are slated to re-open, and the days of social distancing begin to fade as concerts and sporting events bring spectators back.
In the U.S., we’re now averaging 154 deaths a day from COVID-19 — a tiny fraction compared to the pandemic’s peak — and there are still some safety measures and restrictions in place. Late pandemic American life hasn’t quite returned to the status quo, but it feels much closer to normal than it did six months ago.
But while we may long for authorities to give an all-clear and say the pandemic is history, the crisis isn’t over, in the U.S. or abroad.
The question of when the crisis will actually be over is a layered one — with different answers from a local, national and global perspective.
There are no set-in-stone metrics for when it’s over
The U.S. declared COVID-19 a national emergency on March 13, 2020.
After many months in which the U.S. led the world in coronavirus cases, the virus is now under much better control, due to wide availability of COVID-19 vaccines.
That federal emergency status is still in effect — it has been renewed several times, most recently in April. It can be extended by the Secretary of Health and Human Services for as long as the emergency is deemed to exist.
It’s not clear whether the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will issue any sort of all-clear. The CDC did not respond to NPR on the matter.
Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, hopes that the CDC will eventually give Americans that go-ahead sign. He previously served in numerous roles over nearly 20 years at the CDC.
When the time comes, Mokdad tells NPR, “It’s very important for our own CDC … to say ‘We’re out of danger right now. We should move on with our lives.’ “
He says there aren’t set-in-stone metrics to determine when a pandemic is over, because the situation is dynamic and changing so fast. And the virus itself is evolving, too.
“When you look at the genetic makeup and sequencing of the virus … and how it has been changing, there’s still a lot of room for it to mutate. It’s not at the end of the mutation cycle that it can do. So that virus could still carry a lot of surprises,” he says.
How a pandemic officially ends
The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11 last year – the same day that life began to change dramatically in much of the U.S.
So when the virus eventually is under control, will WHO declare the pandemic over?
When the worldwide spread of COVID-19 stops, it will no longer be considered a pandemic. “In general, if the worldwide spread of a disease is brought under control to a localized area, we can say that it is no longer a pandemic but instead, an epidemic.
But it emphasized that the characterization of the outbreak as a pandemic has no formal meaning under international law.
What does have a formal meaning is a “public health emergency of international concern” – a status assigned to COVID-19 at the end of January 2020. That’s the highest level of health alarm under international law.
WHO convenes an international committee every three months to determine if an outbreak should still be considered such a global health emergency. When it’s over, WHO says it’s over. That’s what it did last summer regarding an Ebola outbreak in Africa.
But it will most likely be a while before that happens.
As WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus frequently states: none of us will be safe until everyone is safe.
The U.S. is not out of the woods yet
The Delta variant has spread just as fast through the U.S. as epidemiologists feared it would. It now accounts for more than half the cases in the U.S., and far more than that in certain states.
Delta Is Now The Dominant Coronavirus Variant In The U.S.
Lynn Goldman, an epidemiologist and dean of the school of public health at George Washington University, says the U.S. has certain things working for it, and some against it.
The good news is we’ve shown the ability to lower rates of transmission and deaths from the virus. And of course, Americans have widespread access to COVID-19 vaccines.
The bad news is there’s resistance to the two main ways to prevent transmission – getting vaccinated and wearing a mask.
“And unfortunately, those two attributes tend to coincide within the same people and within the same population subgroups,” Goldman says. In other words, many of the same people who don’t want to get a vaccine also don’t want to wear a mask.
As a result, Goldman says, we’re likely to see continued transmission of the virus in the U.S., concentrated in the areas with lowest rates of vaccination.
The current vaccines are highly effective against COVID-19, including the Delta variant. That means vastly different outcomes for those who are vaccinated and those who aren’t. Last month, for example, 92 people died of COVID-19 in the state of Maryland. All of them were unvaccinated.