The Omicron variant’s aggressive advance is the latest twist in the course of a disease that public-health experts say is on a path toward becoming endemic in the U.S.
In other words, the Covid-19 pandemic won’t have an end date. Rather, a crisis that engulfed the world within months of the coronavirus’s discovery in China will dissipate in fits and starts into something that feels more like normal over the course of years, infectious-disease experts say.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a day where the whole thing feels over,” said Joshua Schiffer, an associate professor in the vaccine and infectious disease division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
How quickly an endemic, steady-state arrives and how disruptive the virus remains will depend on what level of disease officials and individuals decide to tolerate, the precautions they are willing to adopt, and how the virus evolves.
“It’s a tug of war between society and the virus,” said Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco.
Omicron shows how vulnerable society remains, even in countries with relatively high levels of population immunity. The variant accounted for 73% of new U.S. infections in the week through Dec. 18, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates show, up from 13% the week before. Hospitalizations and deaths were already rising in the U.S. before Omicron was identified, and officials have said they expect its rapid spread to further strain the healthcare system.
With a new wave rising, people and institutions are making decisions that reflect changing attitudes toward the threat that Covid-19 represents. The Biden administration is preparing to distribute 500 million free rapid at-home tests starting in January, raise vaccination capacity and deploy doctors and nurses to overburdened hospitals but hasn’t called for broad shutdowns.
Federal officials are encouraging people to get vaccinated and boosted, wear masks in indoor public settings and get tested before gathering with friends and family for the holidays. Some cities and states are reinstating indoor mask policies or moving to require proof of vaccination to enter indoor public spaces.
Meanwhile, people and businesses have had mixed reactions to Omicron. Some are scaling-back holiday plans, while others are forging ahead. After two years, many people are tired of the pandemic’s disruptions and precautions used to fight it. Some advances since last winter, including vaccines and rapid tests, can help people during this surge maintain activities that were put on hold last winter, public-health experts said.