Pandemic vs endemic: Doctors say COVID-19 endemic is likely, though timeline unknown

Published: Jan. 31, 2022 at 9:00 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Is a new era upon us in the fight against COVID-19?

The Shelby County Health Department (SCHD) will not release any more health directives as the latest one expired Monday.

The department says it plans to update the latest COVID-19 guidance as soon as it’s available to push information out faster.

Doctors are also looking at the next corner to turn in this pandemic. Now, some focus has been put on what COVID-19 will look like once it turns into an endemic.

An endemic is a term for a condition or disease that is regularly found in an area or population. A pandemic has an end. An endemic does not. It’s anything from the common cold to tuberculosis and malaria in certain parts of the world.

Doctors see that happening to COVID-19, possibly in the near future.

“The thing has certainly been with us for two years,” said infectious disease specialist Dr. Steve Threlkeld. “I think it will become endemic. Exactly which day we decide that’s the case [we don’t know]. Not an exact science at making those determinations.”

Many pandemic indicators continue to decrease across the Mid-South. In Shelby County, hospitalizations continue to decline from the peak of over 750 COVID-19 hospitalizations in a single day earlier this year.

While an endemic means the virus will be sticking around, it doesn’t dictate how severe the virus that stays will be.

“The reality is we don’t have control whether we’re out of the woods or not,” Threlkeld said. “These variants are likely to pop up as long as there are so many people around the world who are unvaccinated. The cases are going to continue.”

New variants are still being reported, including the BA2 strain, or ‘stealth omicron.’ Doctors said the only way to prevent more variants from forming is to get vaccinated.

The Mid-South remains lower in vaccination rates than the national average. Tennessee and Arkansas have 53 percent of the population fully vaccinated. Mississippi is at 50 percent.

In Mississippi, there was a small rebound in COVID-19 hospitalizations last week where 1,706 were hospitalized in the state with the virus. This weekend, the numbers started going back down. Now, about 1,500 remain hospitalized.

Threlkeld said it appears the omicron variant peaked quickly in the region, as it has in other areas, and is now declining quickly. He said it’s important to pay attention to these kinds of rebounds, even if just a small jump.

“What might cause those things to happen? For one thing the fact we have a relatively low vaccination rate in Mississippi could kind of lead to that sort of pattern. There are just more brush fires to be set,” Threlkeld said.

Health experts expect it will take about eight weeks for hospitalizations to continue to decline to rates we saw before the omicron surge, which means healthcare systems will continue to be taxed as we approach spring.

“Our hospital systems still remain strained,” said Methodist infectious disease specialist, Dr. Shirin Mazumder. “We really encourage people to remain careful and get vaccinated to relieve some of the burden on our healthcare systems.”

You can find a vaccination location closest to your house here.

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