With half of the adult U.S. population fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relaxing its mask guidance for people who are fully vaccinated, some people are feeling like life is returning back to normal and the pandemic is winding down.
But when is the pandemic over? That’s a question some have posed on social media and search interest related to the end of the pandemic has remained steady throughout the month of May, according to data from Google Trends.
Is there a set standard that will mark the end of the COVID-19 pandemic?
No, there are no set standards that will mark the end of the pandemic. While pandemic means the worldwide spread of a virus, characterizing an outbreak as a pandemic has no formal meaning, according to WHO.
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Dr. John Townes, medical director of infection prevention and control at Oregon Health & Science University, said descriptions of the spread of a disease are not absolute. But generally, Townes said, an outbreak means there’s an increase above the expected number of infections. He said an epidemic typically means an outbreak has spread more generalized into a community and a pandemic is when the spread is global.
On its website, WHO defines pandemic as “the worldwide spread of a new disease.”
“When a disease spreads worldwide, it is called a pandemic,” WHO said in an email to VERIFY. “This is a way to characterize an outbreak. Its ‘declaration’ holds no official meaning. When the worldwide spread of COVID-19 stops, it will no longer be considered a pandemic.”
Classifying the spread of a disease as a pandemic is subjective, though, as there is no definition for what constitutes worldwide spread. There were reported cases in 114 countries when WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Some epidemiologists had called on WHO to declare the crisis a pandemic before the organization did.
“If there's no definition of when you call it a pandemic, there's no real definition for when it's over either,” Townes said.
“Things are often on a continuum and we can't really necessarily break them down into a pandemic, no pandemic,” he explained. “Those are artificial barriers that we put on things in order to communicate on them.”
Townes pointed to the spread of the virus as an indicator of where the pandemic stands, and when it may be over. WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus shared a similar sentiment in an address at the World Health Assembly on May 24, 2021. He said the COVID-19 pandemic will not be over “until and unless transmission is controlled in every last country.”
In the U.S., cases and deaths are on a downward trend, although tens of thousands of families are still being affected by COVID-19 every day. The CDC reports, as of May 28, the seven-day average of daily new cases was 21,627 and the seven-day average of daily deaths was 438.
Christopher McKnight Nichols, a history professor at Oregon State University, said there’s also a sociological element at play. Some people who are fully vaccinated and whose lives are largely unaffected by COVID-19 will feel like the pandemic is over. But not everyone will share that feeling.
“It’s individual. So, how do you feel about the end of the pandemic? For you, is it the end of the pandemic? It might not be for someone living in your home or down the street,” Nichols explained.
He said public policy will also play a role. Nichols said a lot of the same non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as quarantining and wearing masks, were used to try and keep people safe during the 1918 flu pandemic, which the CDC estimates led to 50 million deaths worldwide and about 675,000 deaths in the U.S. But he said as the pandemic wound down, so did those life-altering measures.
“So, just like 1918, if there aren’t closure orders, if there aren’t mask orders, if there aren’t limits on gatherings, those are clear signals that the pandemic is subsiding in some fundamental way that there isn’t this what you might call existential crisis, leading to really draconian measures to try to save lives, especially the most vulnerable amongst us,” Nichols said.
As measures relax and interfere less in people’s lives, Townes said people will have a sense the pandemic is ending.
“For the average person, I think probably the pandemic will be over when the control measures that interrupt their lives are lifted, and when people no longer see evidence of the pandemic in front of them,” Townes said. “They’re back at their job, there's no requirement for this or that. You know, when is that?”
The future of COVID-19 in the U.S. is unclear, as it’s not known how many people will get vaccinated, and what impacts new variants may have on infection rates.
Some countries may end up having low transmission rates because of factors such as access to vaccines, and the pandemic may feel over because COVID-19 is not as impactful on altering day-to-day life. But other countries may be in different situations, and thus COVID-19 will continue to be classified as a pandemic. To what level transmission needs to be controlled worldwide for COVID-19 to no longer be classified as a pandemic is unclear.