When Will the COVID-19 Pandemic Be Over?
The first cases of COVID-19 were identified in December 2019. Within months, the disease spread around the world, triggering lockdowns and upending society as we know it. A year and a half into the pandemic, most people are more than ready for the pandemic to be over—and anxiously looking for reassurance. COVID-19 cases are down in many places and vaccination rates continue to rise, leading many people to wonder how and when the COVID-19 pandemic will end.
First, some good news: No pandemic has lasted forever. All previous pandemics, including the 1918 influenza pandemic and the bubonic plague (Black Death) pandemic that ravaged the Earth in the 1300s, ended eventually.
Unlike movies, books, and TV shows, though, pandemics do not have discrete and well-defined endings. Typically, they taper off, flare up again, taper off, flare, and taper off before eventually petering out. The timing of the end of a pandemic can be affected by human behavior, natural disasters, and access to resources, which means that we humans have some say in when the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is in a fight for its life. All viruses change, or mutate, over time; some of these mutations may make a virus more transmittable (contagious) or deadly. Several of the so-called COVID variants have been classified as variants of concern because they may be more contagious or more likely to cause serious health problems.
As the virus changes, though, our collective immune systems become smarter. Millions of humans now have some natural immunity to COVID-19 infection. Millions more have some immunity as a result of COVID-19 vaccinations, so it’s harder and harder for the virus to find suitable human hosts.
A virus that kills most of its hosts won’t last long because it will soon run out of hosts. So, to survive, viruses often become less deadly. That’s basically how previous influenza pandemics ended: the virus changed, and pandemic flu became seasonal flu.
Vaccinations may help speed the end of the pandemic. Vaccinations can prevent people from contracting and spreading the virus that causes COVID-19, and that’s a crucial step in interrupting continued disease transmission (and new mutations in the virus). Vaccination is also the quickest, safest way to build a community’s resistance to a virus.
As of mid-June 2021, 44% of people in the United States were fully vaccinated against COVID-19; 53% had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, which may provide some protection against disease. Worldwide, though, just 6.2% of the population was fully vaccinated.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “herd immunity” (also called “population immunity”) is defined as “the indirect protection from an infectious disease that happens when a population is immune either through vaccination or immunity developed through previous infection.” In simpler terms, herd immunity means it’s difficult for a disease to spread through a community because most people are immune to it—so difficult, in fact, that even unvaccinated individuals are unlikely to get infected.
Experts have said that somewhere between 70 to 90% of the population would need immunity to COVID-19 (either via vaccination or natural infection) to achieve herd immunity to this particular disease.
The end of the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t here yet, but if case numbers continue to decline and vaccinations increase, daily life may look a lot more “normal” in the United States by the end of July 2021.
There are many reasons to get the COVID-19 vaccine, including protecting your health as well as your loved ones' health. If you have any questions about getting the COVID vaccine, talk with your healthcare provider.