Breanna Reeves |
A little over one week into the New Year, many continue to wonder: Will COVID ever go away?
The short answer is: No. The long answer is more complicated as the world continues to navigate the changes influenced by the pandemic and accept that the virus is here to stay in one capacity or another. Like influenza and other respiratory viruses, some health officials suggest COVID could become a seasonal virus that peaks during winter months — in other words, endemic.
“When speaking about COVID, I think it is important to remember that COVID was the third leading cause of death in 2020, the third leading cause of death in 2021 and also the third leading cause of death in 2022,” said Dr. Ben Neuman, Chief Virologist of the Global Health Research Complex at Texas A&M University, during a media briefing on Jan. 6.
“Anyone telling you that COVID is over is misinformed, at the very least.”
Throughout the pandemic, several COVID-19 variants have emerged, with the initial Omicron strain (BA.1) and its subvariants recognized as the most transmissible and more severe than previous variants.
While influenza peaked five weeks ago and cases are decreasing, and RSV peaked eight weeks ago with cases also decreasing steadily, COVID cases are rising as a result of a new subvariant called XBB.1.5.
The new year brought with it XBB.1.5 which has spread rapidly across the East Coast. The mutations of the subvariant have made it easy for the virus to evade immunity. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that XBB.1.5 is spreading quickly and accounted for 27% of COVID cases in the U.S. last week. XBB.1.5 is more prevalent on the East Coast, accounting for 72% of infections across the region.
“XBB.1.5 appears to grow well and have a little bit better affinity for the receptors in our lungs. It is better at holding on to people, essentially, than some of the previous strains it evolved from,” Dr. Neuman explained. “It appears that it is very infectious and is overcoming at least some components of immunity.”
Last September, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized an update of COVID boosters which contain components of Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5. As of Dec. 9, 2022, eligible individuals from six months of age and older are able to get the bivalent vaccine following the completion of the primary vaccine series. Bivalent vaccination rates across the state remain low with just 22.5% of the state’s population vaccinated with the booster and 15% of the total U.S. population.
Research studies on COVID-19 strains similar to XBB.1.5 indicate a need to update the vaccine strain as the current bivalent booster offers limited protection against the new subvariant. After not meeting since October 2022, the FDA’s Vaccine Advisory Committee is scheduled to meet on Jan. 26, 2023 to discuss the state of COVID-19.
What it means to move into the endemic phase of COVID
“What does endemic really mean? Endemic means that an infection is still circulating in the area or community, but it’s not disrupting daily life. Is it disrupting our daily life?” Dr. Oliver Brooks, Chief Medical Officer at Watts Healthcare, explained. “I would say now, yes. But can we move to where it is not disrupting our daily life? We can get there.”
Testing, vaccinating and treating are the tools that will lead to COVID becoming endemic, according to Dr. Brooks.
In December 2022, the United States Postal Service again began mailing four free COVID-19 test kits to each household. U.S. residents can still order test kits here. Health officials encourage the public to continue to test and report positive COVID-19 results to determine how to treat infected persons.
COVID-19 treatment options are more widely available, but require authorization from a provider. Treatment options include oral antiviral pills that can be prescribed and picked up at a local pharmacy and intravenous infusions at a health facility.
While the time for an updated vaccine is here, health officials address the importance of getting the bivalent booster to offer any protection against COVID-19 variants as opposed to no protection and waning protection. The California Department of Public Health noted that during November 2022, unvaccinated people were 2.9 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than people who were vaccinated with at least a primary series.
“People need to get their second booster. I think concepts of how well [the bivalent booster] responds and the new variant are well and good, however, the vaccine is safe and effective, and there’s no reason not to get vaccinated,” Dr. Brooks urged.
Life expectancy dropped in 2020 due to COVID-19. In 2019, people born in the U.S. had a life expectancy of 79 years. In 2020, that dropped to 77 years. In 2021, that number dropped again, to 76.1 years, according to a CDC Provisional Life Expectancy report.
“The non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN) experienced the greatest decline in life expectancy (1.9 years) between 2020 and 2021. The decline was due primarily to increases in mortality due to COVID-19 (21.4%),” the report noted.
The Black population had the third greatest decline in life expectancy (0.7 years) between 2020 and 2021 after the White population (1 year), primarily due to increases in mortality due to COVID-19 (35%).
“People have become complacent. They are not taking COVID-19 seriously,” Dr. Brooks opined. “We [have] got to get away from being complacent. Do we need another million people to die before we stop being complacent? What more do we have to do?”