RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Public health experts predict the coronavirus pandemic at some point will become an endemic.
“I think that’s what you should expect,” said Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist at Duke University’s medical school.
That would seem to run counter to an optimistic statement from Gov. Roy Cooper. Speaking before President Biden took the stage earlier this week at a community center in Raleigh, Cooper said to applause that “we will get enough people vaccinated to put this pandemic behind us for good.”
But experts say it’s increasingly likely that neither the virus nor the disease it causes will ever go away entirely — at least, not with the vaccination rates this low. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says nearly two thirds of adults in the U.S. has had at least one shot, and in North Carolina that rate is only 55 percent.
“We’re not going to be able to get rid of (COVID-19) for the foreseeable future,” said Dr. Pia MacDonald, an epidemiologist at RTI International.
An endemic disease is one that continues to circulate in the environment — like influenza, measles or even some varieties of the common cold — and in the cases of the flu and measles still can be fatal.
“Endemic means that, yes, we would expect that this will circulate and continue to do so,” Wolfe said.
That underscores the importance of the vaccine, Wolfe says.
Those who remain unvaccinated continue to face the same risk of catching the virus, winding up in a hospital or even dying as they would at the peak of the spread five months ago.
But among those who have gotten the shots, Wolfe says they largely face no worse than mild symptoms.
“Their likelihood of getting anything other than a cold is actually really rare,” he said. “And that’s consistent with what we’ve seen with other coronaviruses. In the past, when they’ve emerged, they sort of start falling in the background, for a heavily vaccinated community, as simply a respiratory virus that doesn’t leave people in hospital.”
He expects COVID-19 to become periodic, with peaks and valleys in case counts, and based on how those numbers climbed last winter, another rise could come when cold weather returns and people move back indoors more frequently into poorly ventilated places.
“The frequency of how it circulates, I think, is a bit unknown,” Wolfe said. “I think, looking at the way the last 18 months have been, you might expect that it will be a winter-surging virus. But that remains to be seen, we’ve only gone through one winter with this so far. So we don’t really know.”
He says the federal government’s strategy has begun to accept the reality that COVID is here to stay. That means, in addition to pushing for higher vaccination numbers, more investment in antiviral and other treatments for those who catch the virus.
“We think infections will still come, just hopefully at much less pace” than in January, Wolfe said.