COVID at 3 Years: Where Are We Headed?
March 15, 2023 – Three years after COVID-19 rocked the world, the pandemic has evolved into a steady state of commonplace infections, less frequent hospitalization and death, and continued anxiety and isolation for older people and those with weakened immune systems.
After about 2½ years of requiring masks in health care settings, the CDC lifted its recommendation for universal, mandatory masking in hospitals in September 2022.
Some statistics tell the story of how far we have come. COVID-19 weekly cases dropped to nearly 171,000 on March 8, a huge dip from the 5.6 million weekly cases reported in January 2022. COVID-19 deaths, which peaked in January 2021 at more than 23,000 a week, stood at 1,862 per week on March 8.
Where We Are Now
Since Omicron is so infectious, “we believe that most people have been infected with Omicron in the world,” says Christopher J.L. Murray, MD, a professor and chair of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington and director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle. Sero-prevalence surveys — or the percentage of people in a population who have antibodies for an infectious disease, or the Omicron variant in this case — support this rationale, he says.
“Vaccination was higher in the developed world but we see in the data that Omicron infected most individuals in low income countries,” says Murray. For now, he says, the pandemic has entered a “steady state.”
At New York University Langone Health System, clinical testing is all trending downward, and hospitalizations are low, says Michael S. Phillips, MD, an infectious disease doctor and chief epidemiologist at the health system.
In New York City, there has been a shift from pandemic to “respiratory viral season/surge,” he says.
The shift is also away from universal source control – where every patient encounter in the system involves masking, distancing, and more – to a focus on the most vulnerable patients “to ensure they’re well-protected,” Phillips says.
Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore has seen a “marked reduction” of the number of people coming to the intensive care unit because of COVID, says Brian Thomas Garibaldi, MD, a critical care doctor and director of the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit.
“That is a testament to the amazing power of vaccines,” he says.
The respiratory failures that marked many critical cases of COVID in 2020 and 2021 are much rarer now, a shift that Garibaldi calls “refreshing.”
“In the past 4 or 5 weeks, I’ve only seen a handful of COVID patients. In March and April of 2020, our entire intensive care unit – in fact, six intensive care units – were filled with COVID patients.”
Garibaldi sees his own risk differently now as well.
“I am not now personally worried about getting COVID, getting seriously ill, and dying from it. But if I have an ICU shift coming up next week, I am worried about getting sick, potentially having to miss work, and put that burden on my colleagues. Everyone is really tired now,” says Garibaldi, who is also an associate professor of medicine and physiology in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
What Keeps Experts Up at Night?
The potential for a stronger SARS-CoV-2 variant to emerge concerns some experts.
A new Omicron subvariant could emerge, or a new variant altogether could arise.
One of the main concerns is not just a variant with a different name, but one that can escape current immune protections. If that happens, the new variant could infect people with immunity against Omicron.
If we do return to a more severe variant than Omicron, Murray says, “then suddenly we’re in a very different position.
Keeping an Eye on COVID-19, Other Viral Illnesses
We have better genomic surveillance for circulating strains of SARS-CoV-2 than earlier in the pandemic, Phillips says. More reliable, day-to-day data also helped recently with the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) outbreak and for tracking flu cases.
Wastewater surveillance as an early warning system for COVID-19 or other respiratory virus surges can be helpful, but more research is needed, Garibaldi says. And with more people testing at home, test positivity rates are likely an undercount. So, hospitalization rates for COVID and other respiratory illnesses remain one of the more reliable community-based measures, for now, at least.
One caveat is that sometimes, it is unclear if COVID-19 is the main reason someone is admitted to the hospital vs. someone who comes in for another reason and happens to test positive upon admission.
Phillips suggests that using more than one measure might be the best approach, especially to reduce the likelihood of bias associated with any single strategy. “You need to look at a whole variety of tests in order for us to get a good sense of how it’s affecting all communities,” he says. In addition, if a consensus emerges among different measures – wastewater surveillance, hospitalization and test positivity all trending up – “that’s clearly a sign that things are afoot and that we would need to modify our approach accordingly.”
Where We Could Be Heading
Murray predicts a steady pace of infection with “no big changes.” But waning immunity remains a concern.
That means if you have not had a recent infection – in the last 6 to 10 months – you might want to think about getting a booster, Murray says “The most important thing for people, for themselves, for their families, is to really think about keeping their immunity up.”
Phillips hopes the improved surveillance systems will help public health officials make more precise recommendations based on community levels of respiratory illness.
When asked to predict what might happen with COVID moving forward, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been wrong answering that question,” Garibaldi says.
Rather than making a prediction, he prefers to focus on hope.
“We weathered the winter storm we worried about in terms of RSV, flu, and COVID at the same time. Some places were hit harder than others, especially with pediatric RSV cases, but we haven’t seen anywhere near the level we saw last year and before that,” he says. “So, I hope that continues.”
“We’ve come very far in just 3 years. When I think about where we were in March 2020 taking care of our first round of COVID patients in our first unit called a biocontainment unit,” Garibaldi says.
Murray addresses whether the term “pandemic” still applies at this point.
“In my mind, the pandemic is over,” he says, because we are no longer in an emergency response phase. But COVID in some form is likely to be around for a long time, if not forever.
“So, it depends on how you define pandemic. If you mean an emergency response, I think we’re out of it. If you mean the formal definition you know of an infection that goes all over the place, then we’re going to be in it for a very long time.”