The public health emergency may soon be coming to an end in the United States, but the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, say doctors, epidemiologists and global health leaders.
“Here in the United States, there are more than 2,000 deaths per week and 20,000 to 30,000 people hospitalized at any time,” said Dr. William Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
When the pandemic started is easier to determine than when it will end. The World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. When the pandemic will be over is more fuzzy, explained Dr. Robert Shmerling, senior faculty editor at Harvard Health Publishing.
“As strange as it may seem, there is no single, agreed-upon definition of pandemic that all countries, public health agencies, and world leaders use,” Shmerling wrote in October 2022. “And even if we could all agree on its definition, no single person, government agency, or public health organization has the authority to declare that a pandemic has begun or ended.”
The next phase would be when COVID-19 shifts into the endemic phase, meaning the virus is still with us but doesn’t spread out of control or put a strain on the health care system. When we enter the endemic phase will be easier to see in hindsight than predict, said Shmerling.
The perception that the pandemic is over may come from the way people have largely returned to pre-pandemic life. But human behavior doesn’t necessarily mean the virus has reached the endemic stage.
“I don’t believe the virus has gotten the memo that the pandemic is winding down,” Dr. Jeffrey Glenn, director of the Stanford Biosecurity and Pandemic Preparedness Initiative, told TIME.
“We all know that the pandemic is far from over,” agreed Dr. Moss.
Still, the Biden administration believes we’ve come far enough to end the federal coronavirus emergency. The order will expire on May 11.
“While the virus is not gone, thanks to the resilience of the American people, we have broken COVID’s grip on us,” President Joe Biden said during his State of the Union address. “COVID deaths are down nearly 90%. We’ve saved millions of lives and opened our country back up. And soon we’ll end the public health emergency.”
Some public health experts say the lower risk of mortality from COVID-19 in 2023, thanks in large part to vaccines and anti-viral therapies, makes it OK to end the states of emergency.
“Three years ago, if you … got infected you were rolling the dice about dying,” Brad Pollock, chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of California, Davis, told the Associated Press. “What’s happened in the three years now is we have vaccines, we have antiviral therapy, we have much more knowledge about how we take care of patients in terms of supportive care. Your risk of dying is a fraction of what it was.”
State emergency health orders have also been allowed to expire. After California’s ended on Tuesday, only five states still had emergency orders in place.