Omicron Could Get Us Out of the COVID Pandemic — Here's How

As the highly contagious, but milder, virus spreads through the world, the pandemic could get downgraded to an endemic

Covid testing
COVID-19 testing. Photo: Getty

The highly contagious omicron variant is currently ravaging its way through the U.S. and around the world, infecting millions of people a day with COVID-19. Its rapid spread came at a time when it felt like the pandemic may finally be starting to slow, only to dash hopes that we could find a new normal without the constant fear of COVID-19.

But that still may be possible with omicron, thanks to its contagiousness. As omicron infects millions, including those who are vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19, the pandemic could soon become an endemic, explains Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University.

Here, Schaffner tells PEOPLE how omicron could change the course of the pandemic.

What does it mean for this virus to be endemic versus pandemic?

Let's quickly define three words. An epidemic is the occurrence of a disease above the normal expected amount. And it's usually a pretty localized phenomenon — it could be in a part of a country, part of a city, part of a state. A pandemic, meanwhile, is a global epidemic and occurs when there's an entirely new form of an infectious agent, often a virus that occurs for which the population of the world does not have any previous experience, making them all susceptible.

But pandemics don't continue in infimum. They decrease at some point and then this virus develops a relationship with the population, with the communities, that we call endemic. It just smolders along. It could be a year round virus, or it could be like influenza and be seasonal.

How does it become endemic?

In the case of COVID-19, it's probably going to be as a combination of two things. One is of course vaccination — the more people we vaccinate, the more people are protected against this virus, and the more difficult it is for the virus to find someone who's susceptible.

The other way is for the virus itself to naturally infect people. And as a consequence, those who do recover, rather than those who die, have a degree of protection against the virus. We have these two mechanisms, the natural viral way, and the scientific public health vaccine way, and with omicron I'm sure there's a lot of overlap between the two groups. If we do that sufficiently, then the virus will have a progressively difficult time finding new susceptible people and it will move from this pandemic phase where it's spreading like crazy. It will begin to diminish and diminish and diminish until it's kind of just smoldering amongst us, ready to rear up whenever it finds a new group of susceptibles.

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Why is this more likely to happen with omicron?

Omicron is incredibly contagious, but it also has the capacity when it infects you, particularly if you're vaccinated and boosted, to create milder disease — it's not likely to put you in the hospital. So it has the capacity to spread very, very widely. With all of this spread, it's leaving people protected, at least for a while. The hope is that we can get to that point of our larger population being so well protected that even this infectious virus has difficulty finding new susceptibles, and it's just smoldering along.

Cases of omicron are already starting to go down — is that a good sign?

Yes — in South Africa, where omicron started and in England, where omicron spread like crazy, the curve went up like a shot. It spiked up and didn't stay there very long, and that gives us some cautious optimism that something similar might happen here.

I don't anticipate that we will have the same sharp downturn because our country is so much larger and much more diverse than England and South Africa. So our gradual fall is likely to be slower substantially as virus goes from our cities to our suburbs and now to our rural areas, where there are a lot of unvaccinated people.

I think this virus could act up and give us a fairly brisk January and February, but maybe by the second half of February, it can dwindle. Some of my colleagues who are predicting something faster, and I sure hope they're right.

What would endemic life look like compared to pandemic life?

We first have to acknowledge — and this will make some people grumpy — that COVID is not just going to disappear. It's now part of the human population and will continue to smolder. It may be that we have to get a periodic boost from vaccines to keep us well protected, very similar to what we do with influenza. And indeed, some of the vaccine scientists and companies are already trying to create a combined influenza and COVID vaccine.

The other part is the global aspect. Every variant of concern, including omicron and delta, have come from another country. We are going to have to keep working through the World Health Organization and others to help control COVID around the world, because we want to do everything we can to prevent yet another variant from showing up that might be able to evade the protection that we have. What's happening in other countries around the world will have to continue to be of interest to us while we are in the endemic phase and coping with a smoldering virus.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from the CDC, WHO and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.

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