The pandemic's coming new normal
As both vaccinations and acquired immunity spread, life will likely settle into a new normal that will resemble pre-COVID-19 days — with some major twists.
The big picture: While hospitalizations and deaths are tamped down, the novel coronavirus should recede as a mortal threat to the world. But a lingering pool of unvaccinated people — and the virus' own ability to mutate — will ensure SARS-CoV-2 keeps circulating at some level, meaning some precautions will be kept in place for years.
Driving the news: On Tuesday, Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky told CNBC that people might well need a new coronavirus vaccine annually in the years ahead, much as they do now for the flu.
- Gorsky's comments were one of the clearest signals that even as the number of vaccinated people rises, the mutability of SARS-CoV-2 means the virus will almost certainly be with us in some form for years to come.
Be smart: That sounds like bad news — and indeed, it's much less ideal than a world in which vaccination or infection conferred close to lifelong immunity and SARS-CoV-2 could be definitively conquered like smallpox.
- With more contagious variants spreading rapidly, "the next 12 weeks are likely to be the darkest days of the pandemic," says Michael Osterholm, the director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
- But the apparent effectiveness of the vaccines in preventing hospitalizations and death from COVID-19 — even in the face of new variants — points the way toward a milder future for the pandemic, albeit one that may be experienced very differently around the world.
Details: From studying what happened after new viruses emerged in the past, scientists predict SARS-CoV-2 will eventually become endemic, most likely in a seasonal pattern similar to the kind of coronaviruses that cause the common cold.
- That's nothing to sneeze at — literally, it will make us sneeze — but as immunity levels accumulate throughout the population, our experience of the virus will attenuate, and we'll be highly unlikely to experience the severe death tolls and overloaded hospitals that marked much of the past year.
Yes, but: The existence of a stubborn pool of Americans who say they won't get vaccinated — as well as the fact that it may take far longer for children, whom the vaccines have yet to be tested on, to get coverage — will give the virus longer legs than it would otherwise have.
- "This will be with us forever," says Osterholm. "That's not even a debate at this point."
What's next: This means we can expect the K-shaped recovery that has marked the pandemic to continue, says Ben Pring, who leads Cognizant's Center for the Future of Work.
- With the virus likely to remain a threat, even if a diminished one, "those who are more stuck in the analog world are really going to continue to struggle," he says.
- Health security will also become a more ingrained part of daily life and work, which means temperature checks, masks, frequent COVID-19 testing and even vaccine passports for travel are here to stay.
The catch: That's not all bad — the measures put in place to slow COVID-19 have stomped the flu and other seasonal respiratory viruses, and if we can hold onto some of those benefits in the future, we can save tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars.
- If the inequalities seen in the early phase of the vaccine rollout persist, COVID-19 could become a disease of the poor and disadvantaged, argues Mark Sendak, the co-founder and scientific adviser for Greenlight Ready, a COVID-19 resilience system that grew out of Duke Health.
- Sendak points to the example of HIV, a disease that is entirely controllable with drugs but continues to exert a disproportionate toll on Black Americans, who take pre-exposure prophylactic medicine at much lower rates.
"If we go back to 'normal,' then we have failed."— Mark Sendak
What to watch: Whether the vaccine rollout can be adapted to reach hard to find and hard to persuade populations.
- The Biden administration announced yesterday that it will start delivering vaccines directly to community health centers next week in an effort to promote more equity in the vaccine distribution process.
- As the administration rolls out new COVID-19 plans, it needs to "invest in the community health care personnel" who can ensure that no one is left behind, says Sendak.
The bottom line: While SARS-CoV-2 has proven it can adapt to a changing environment, so can we. But we have to do so in a way that is fairer than our experience of the pandemic has been so far.