How Will the Pandemic End?
BY AMY MENG '25
On March 12, 2020, AB announced that due to the threat of COVID-19, the district would temporarily close its schools. Although the closure was originally set for a week, some people ended up spending the rest of the school year and the majority of the next without entering a school building. Since that day, our lives have been consumed by the pandemic, and it's been confusing. Many of us have struggled to keep up with the media’s different takes on the virus, and our hopes have fluctuated with the waves of news. Through it all, we've looked to the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse of normalcy. Though we’ve long anticipated the return to a COVID-free life, it seems that the virus's presence will blend into the new normal; it will continue to exist (on mute) in society's background, and we will learn to accept it.
The scientific community now agrees that COVID will become endemic, meaning its presence will continue but stay low-key. Why? COVID can't go away. Only two diseases in history have been wiped out completely: smallpox and rinderpest, and both eradications were achieved with aggressive vaccination campaigns. However, that's not applicable here. According to the CDC, Delta is one of the most contagious viral strains ever; it’s more than twice as transmissible as previous COVID variants, which were already highly contagious. If there was any hope in the beginning that COVID would disappear, Delta destroyed the prospect.
That being said, if everyone isolated themselves for the next few years, we could wipe out COVID. However, this is obviously not ideal or possible. This means that COVID will continue to exist as long as we continue our daily activities. Since eradication will not happen, we can look to historical pandemics for other answers.
Two of the most prominent pandemics were the bubonic plague and 1918 H1N1 influenza, but these pandemics didn't end so much as they faded. In both cases, the virus infected so many people that a majority reached immunity (known in scientific terms as herd immunity), and there weren't enough people to infect anymore. Once the viruses reached this point, they lost scope and magnitude, but didn't disappear; they just became more sporadic. Since COVID won't go away either, the "end" of COVID will likely mirror the "ends" of these past pandemics.
It looks like we're approaching an endemic virus, but we're going to get there a different way. We're not letting COVID tear through the population this time, simply because we don't have to: we now have vaccines and booster shots. There are two main reasons why booster shots are necessary; first, some groups, especially older people, don’t adequately establish immunity after the first doses. According to a CDC report, vaccines are 95 percent effective at preventing COVID hospitalization in ages 18-64, but only 80 percent effective in ages 65+. FDA data finds that older age groups tend to experience fewer side effects because their immune systems are less robust. Second, immunity tends to decline over time, which is seen in all age groups. Booster shots serve to re-establish defense against the virus. This reinforcement is necessary for everyone, but again, older people are prioritized.
Unfortunately, vaccination rates are a mess right now. According to Our World in Data's dashboard, vaccination rates range from 78 percent in Massachusetts to 48 percent in Idaho. Less than half of the world population has been partially vaccinated, and the percentage in some countries is as low as 2 percent. Affluent nations need to help with vaccine rollout and encourage people to get the shots. While vaccine progress definitely leaves something to be desired, we're getting there.
When vaccination rates rebound, COVID seems destined to become a normal sort of background: the virus won't dominate our lives forever. According to former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, we seem destined to reach a normal where pandemic precautions will become optional. Simply put, life will retain shades of the pandemic, but the new normal will be close enough to the old normal. Vaccination will eventually become routine along with COVID, and herd immunity is destined to happen by some means. We'll reach a point when COVID will become quiet background noise and we'll stop listening to it—most of the time.