What you need to know
- COVID-19 remains a risk, especially for the elderly, the immunocompromised, and people who are not up to date on their vaccinations.
- Getting an updated COVID-19 booster is crucial to staying protected this winter.
- Precautions like wearing masks and testing regularly are still important, especially as institutions require fewer COVID-19 prevention measures.
President Joe Biden said in a 60 Minutes interview on Sunday that “the pandemic is over.”
“We still have a problem with COVID—we’re still doing a lot of work on it,” he said. “But the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one’s wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape, and so I think it’s changing.”
Vaccines and treatments have significantly reduced the virus’s severity. COVID-19 deaths worldwide have reached their lowest level since March 2020. But the U.S. continues to see hundreds of COVID-19 deaths per day, and we don’t yet know how our immune systems will fare against whatever new variant the winter may bring.
Is the pandemic over?
Many individuals and organizations in the U.S. are operating as if the pandemic is nearing an end. Mask mandates have been dropped. Quarantines are no longer recommended. Isolation periods have been cut in half. Students are returning to schools and employees to offices. Vaccines and treatments greatly reduce the risk of severe disease and death.
Despite society’s return to something closer to normal, the virus still has a relatively high disease burden, with the elderly, immunocompromised, and unvaccinated particularly vulnerable. As winter approaches and new variants develop, it’s still plausible that the country will experience another surge in the coming months.
Is COVID-19 like the flu yet?
COVID-19 is still killing an average of about 400 people per day. If deaths continue at this pace, the annual death toll would be 146,000. A bad flu season kills about 52,000 people.
There is some debate over how COVID-19 deaths are counted and how COVID-19 risk compares to that of the flu now that the majority of the population has protection from either prior infection or vaccination. But COVID-19 and its potentially long-lasting symptoms remain unpredictable and we don’t know what this winter has in store.
What should we expect in the coming months?
Omicron subvariant BA.5 continues to be dominant in the U.S., but BA.4.6 is starting to gain a foothold and may be the reason COVID-19 virus levels in wastewater have been rising in the Northeast. Whether this will translate into a rise in cases is yet to be seen, though BA.4.6 does not have significant mutations for immune evasion.
In the international sphere, some other variants are gaining attention, including BJ.1, BA.2.3, and BA.2.75.2, each of which has mutations that could allow for significant immune escape. If this proves true, one of them could cause a winter wave. At present, however, there is not enough data to make any clear conclusions.
“To me, this winter will be a true test as to whether we are still in an ‘emergency’ phase, at least if we define this by deaths, hospitalizations, and healthcare capacity (opposed to infection or long COVID),” epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina wrote in her newsletter this week.
What can you do to stay safe?
We now have updated COVID-19 boosters, which are bivalent vaccines that include components from both the original COVID-19 virus and the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants. The expectation is that these boosters will provide longer-term immunity and broader protection against future variants. Their bivalent nature prepares them to protect against future Omicron strains as well as new mutations that may branch off of the original virus, such as another Delta variant. Getting a booster will be crucial to staying safe this winter.
Besides staying up to date on your vaccinations, the same COVID-19 precautions from earlier in the pandemic continue to apply and are arguably now more important since the responsibility of risk reduction has shifted from institutions onto individuals. Wear high-quality, well-fitting masks in indoor public spaces and if community transmission is rising in your area. Test regularly and at least two times 48 hours apart to avoid getting a false negative. Be prepared for the chance that you do get infected and know your options for treatment.
“We have never been in a better position to end the pandemic,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a media briefing last week. “We are not there yet, but the end is in sight. A marathon runner does not stop when the finish line comes into view. She runs harder, with all the energy she has left. … But now is the worst time to stop running.”