Could the COVID-19 pandemic end soon? Here's what experts say about endemic phase

The pandemic could end in a matter of weeks and months with the virus entering an "endemic" phase

ByPamela Parker via WABC logo
Saturday, January 15, 2022
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The highly-infectious omicron variant could hasten the pandemic to end after the surge, according to several experts ABC7 News talked to.

SAN FRANCISCO -- It is "reasonably likely" to expect the pandemic to draw to a close as soon as a month from today, though COVID-19 is likely to stay, according to UCSF's Chair of the Department of Medicine, Dr. Robert Wachter.

He expects infections to fall and community immunity levels to rise from a combination of vaccinations, antiviral medication and omicron infections as the pandemic enters a new phase -- turning endemic.

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This sentiment is echoed by other infectious disease experts in the field.

"The end game is really bringing down the virus to low levels where we just live with it. And what omicron will do is bring the virus down to low levels in the community because it's causing so much immunity," say Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases doctor and Professor of Medicine at UCSF. "It'll bring it down to a controllable phase, which we call endemicity. So after this surge, we should be in the end game of the pandemic and into endemic."

"In the next few weeks, we expect that the numbers are going to start to drop off pretty soon in California, and there's evidence that that's happening elsewhere also. So what we're really hoping will happen is to move to a phase where we know that we have to live with this virus," Professor of Pediatrics (infectious diseases) and of Epidemiology and population health at Stanford Medicine, Dr. Yvonne Maldonado says.

All four doctors interviewed told ABC7 News in San Francisco that they believe the SARS-CoV-2 is here to stay but expressed cautious optimism that we are turning a corner for the better.

"It has to end to become endemic at some point in time, so yes, my guess is that it would be this year. I based that largely what we're seeing in other countries that are probably more vaccinated than we are. The bottom line is that if we're going to control transmission, we need to be vaccinated and boosted," UCSF epidemiologist Dr. George Rutherford says.

All four doctors point to vaccinations as the main pathway to achieve endemicity.

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"Out of 1.2 million people in one particular healthcare study who were fully vaccinated, only 36 people in that group died. And there were about 2,500 infections. So it was about a 0.2% rate of infection. So if you are vaccinated, and you are potentially exposed and get infected with omicron, your risk of serious disease, death or other complications is going to be extremely low. So again, I can't emphasize enough how important it is for people to be vaccinated because that is going to be our way out of this pandemic," says Dr. Maldonado.

"I do think that there's a chance that we can get rid of the pandemic - meaning large surges of hospitalizations and deaths, and maybe get to a point where we have a circulation of the virus with less hospitalizations and deaths and maybe the same or more infections, but not leading to the bad outcomes. And we're going to have to learn how to live with that with vaccinations. And we'll have to learn more about whether we can stop masking at some point later this year. If the disease becomes less severe," she says.

However, Dr. Wachter says although he can project a fall in infections with some confidence for the spring and perhaps the summer, he isn't as confident to say the same of the fall and winter later this year. "A lot of that depends on if there is a new and worse variant."

He says how much immunity from an omicron infection alone is also still unknown. "For unvaccinated people, if their only immunity is from an infection, it really all depends on how good that immunity is and how long it lasts. If it starts waning, and they're vulnerable again, then we could see another significant surge. But I'm moderately optimistic," Dr. Wachter says.