Updated Jan 7, 2022 - COVID

What next for COVID-19 in year 3: A new reality

Data: N.Y. Times; Cartogram: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

The third year of the COVID-19 pandemic will look much like the last two.

State of play: What will change is how we approach it. The fast-moving Omicron variant is the focus at the moment.

  • In Colorado, rates are rising with a positivity rate showing 1 in 4 infected — essentially one person on every chairlift.

What's next: Public health officials are planning for a new reality.

  • More variants will emerge as the coronavirus mutates.
  • Retooled vaccines will be needed to neutralize the latest strains.
  • Testing and stay-home-when-sick mantras will remain vital for detection and limiting spread.

What they're saying: "One thing we learned from the virus is it's going to stay with us," says Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health. "We are going to be living with it in the foreseeable future."

What to watch: Barring a significant turn for the worse, the coming year will mark the transition from a pandemic virus to an endemic one.

  • Colorado's response to the disease will similarly shift, state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy tells us.
  • If future COVID-19 infections are milder and vaccinations increase, the state's monitoring approach would become less vigilant and essentially mirror tracking for routine respiratory disease, like the flu.
  • This means no need for disruptive strategies like masks, quarantines or capacity limits, she said.
  • The state would merely monitor which populations were most impacted and the timing of COVID "season" so it could alert the public.

The big picture: This line of thinking follows the "new normal" strategy that medical experts are imploring President Biden to take with the pandemic.

  • Colorado leaders — including Gov. Jared Polis and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock — are echoing the sentiment.
  • "We should stop thinking in terms of a 'return to normal' and instead focus on how we make post-pandemic life … better, more equitable and more resilient than before," Hancock spokesperson Mike Strott tells us.

Between the lines: How public health leaders move forward is a point of concern, however, and controversies about prevention measures are expected to continue.

  • "We have almost two years of lessons learned, and some of them we don't seem to be learning quickly," Samet says, pointing to changing federal guidelines.
  • "I think we need to move backwards and then think forward about how well we've done with science-based policy making," he adds.

Go deeper with our entire What's Next series looking at business, politics, downtown and food

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