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Is covid-19 still a pandemic? How long do pandemics last?

New infections in the US have been having a steep drop-off since the end of January, giving some scientists hope that the pandemic could be over.

People walk past a direction sign for a covid-19 vaccination centre, amidst the easing of lockdown restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, in London, Britain March 10, 2022.
Toby MelvilleReuters

The danger and fear that has been gripping many nations since January 2020 could soon be over, as the covid-19 pandemic recedes in prevalence around the world. What was once described as a pandemic has got scientists and public health officials discussing the steps that are needed to navigate our way out; from a pandemic to an endemic. But that doesn't mean everyone is safe.

What is the difference between a pandemic and endemic disease?

An endemic disease is when a disease has become prevalent enough in a population that new spreads are small and there is a relatively low spread. An example of an endemic disease would be malaria, which is a danger in many countries around the equator, but not in a country like Norway. This is opposed to a pandemic, like covid-19, which spread rapidly around many countries in a short space of time.

With immunity high in many western countries, from a combination of vaccines and getting the virus, predictions are that rapid high numbers of cases could be a thing of the past.

"Endemicity was written into this virus," says Dr Elisabetta Groppelli, a virologist at St George's, University of London.

"I am very optimistic," she says. "We'll soon be in a situation where the virus is circulating, we will take care of people at risk, but for anybody else we accept they will catch it - and your average person will be fine."

As Dr. Gropelli says, keeping those people who are still at risk from covid-19 complications safe should still be a priority. However, discussions about plans such as 'learning to live with the virus' like in the UK seem to be just masks for a return to pre-pandemic life. Many with immunocompromised illnesses have a right to be worried, and to know how they will be protected as we leave the pandemic.

How long do pandemics last?

So many factors are involved in how long a pandemic can last, depending on treatment, infectiousness and a host more. Covid-19 was first reported at the end of 2019, but it didn't become a pandemic until March 11 2020. Now, exactly two years later, it appears that it is drawing to an end.

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The current data in the US is positive. The number of new infections have been on a constant and steep decline since the end of January, with the latest data showing 47,293 new cases. In comparison, the peak in January 2022 was seeing more than a million cases a day.This trend is reflected in the number of deaths, though the drop off has not been quite as steep. The seven-day rolling average is 1,504 deaths, though March 5 saw the lowest levels of deaths since December, 307.

The outlook is as positive as can be hoped, especially as the US approaches the summer season when the chances of indoor infection are further reduced.


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