The word “endemic” has become a trendy talking point in pandemic lingo — the latest of buzzwords that have surfaced during our pandemic chapters of life (from “flatten the curve,” “hot vax summer” and so the list goes on).
We’ve been given lots of changing information over the past two years as pandemic circumstances shift — like how staying home saves lives, why new variants might be able to evade our body’s protections or how COVID could eventually evolve to behave similarly to a common cold or flu. Now in this new chapter of pandemic life, we’re being told that COVID is bound to become “endemic” in the U.S. — even if our society hasn’t gotten there yet.
Our team at Solv will break down what the term “endemic” means and do a bit of myth-busting to explain why some folks are misunderstanding it as a marker of something we’ve all been craving these past two years: normalcy. Then we’ll dive into a broader question: What is life going to be like with COVID in our lives?
Right now, many families may feel like we’re in a moment when life feels almost normal again. Case counts have thankfully dwindled after the Omicron surge, but there are bound to be points when they rise again with new variants. We’ll share some ways that our team is thinking about how to manage our lifestyles, approaches and mentalities during this chapter so we can navigate the pandemic cycles to come.
First, what does endemic mean?
People have been throwing around the term “endemic” quite a bit in popular culture. Some are interpreting this as a benchmark that we’ll reach when the virus is stable, and presume that after this point we can begin to live with COVID like it’s the seasonal flu.
However, reaching endemicity doesn’t mean that COVID will be over like a light switch. It’s a term to describe a disease state. A disease can become an epidemic, pandemic or endemic. Here’s a quick refresher on the first two:
- Epidemic: An unexpected increase in the number of disease cases in a specific geographical area, as defined by Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.
- Pandemic: When a disease’s growth is exponential, according to the Mailman School, and it impacts several counties and populations across a wide area. As the WSJ notes, it’s “an epidemic that becomes widespread around the world.”
How do we define endemic? Experts can’t agree on one clear answer, Jacob Stern and Katherine Wu explain in The Atlantic. Though there are multiple definitions, a helpful way we’ve thought about an endemic state is predictability in the average number of people who transmit a disease over a time period.
Let’s take a year, for example. If COVID were to become endemic, every person that catches it might spread it to one other person on average per year, according to The Atlantic.
What information “endemic” does and doesn’t tell us
A useful metaphor to understand endemicity is a bathtub, note Wu and Stern in The Atlantic. Water is flowing in and out of the tub at a steady, consistent pace. The water isn’t suddenly overflowing or draining.
Even if COVID becomes endemic, this status doesn’t tell us much about how severe or mild infections are, or how high or low case counts are. It just means COVID is spreading at a controlled speed and has reached an equilibrium. As Wu and Stern put it: “The water in that tub might be hot or cold; the level it plateaus at can be very high or very low.”
Experts don’t have a guarantee on when COVID will become endemic — or if it ever will, according to The Atlantic. Plus, reaching endemicity — in a geographic area, or population — doesn’t mean our experiences with COVID are over. So how can you continue moving forward with the virus in your life?
“Endemic strategies” for living with COVID
On a large scale, some regions have launched “endemic strategies” to navigate this phase of life, when we exist alongside COVID rather than hiding from the virus outright.
California became the first state to launch such a strategy in February: Rather than mask mandates or shutdown, California governor Gavin Newsom’s “endemic” approach emphasizes prevention and swift action when outbreaks crop up, according to NPR. This means steps like putting resources toward identifying surges or new variants, adding health care workers and building up testing supplies.
Another way to think about the next chapter is the “control” phase, as Katherine Wu writes in The Atlantic.
What could your personal “endemic strategy” look like?
At Solv, we find it helpful to think about proactivity, prevention and changing shades of gray when it comes to controlling the spread of COVID.
- Be proactive: Make sure you have at-home tests handy and supplies to manage symptoms if you test positive. Keep up your pandemic practices, like testing often — and not just during a surge, Katherine Wu writes in The Atlantic.
- Prevention: It can be helpful to stay up to date with case counts in your region or places you’re traveling, read the news and adapt to CDC guidelines as they change. To build immunity, keep up with your booster shots as they become available.
- Shades of gray: When cases are surging, you could consider masking up or adjusting how you socialize for the time being. Remember that this isn’t black-and-white, and your actions don’t have to be forever: you may feel most comfortable masking at a party in May but taking off the mask in June based on what’s going on, and that’s ok. You can adapt as you see fit.
The bottom line: we’ve lived through many cycles of COVID. The virus is likely to wax and wane again, according to The Atlantic. So from a mental health and planning standpoint, it can be helpful to manage expectations and shift our thinking away from all-or-nothing approaches. There won’t be one finish line to the pandemic where it’s all over, as Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom put it.
Even so, you don’t have to dust off your best pajama set and mentally prepare for total lockdowns and social isolation! Keep your eye on what’s happening and maintain your practices — but at the same time, give yourself permission to live your life and find joy where you can. Many things can be true at the same time! Striking that balance can be tricky, but figuring that out will be what this next phase of pandemic life is all about.
Keeping up with COVID care in this next chapter
Want to stay proactive about managing your COVID care? To get ahead on testing, Solv can help you find and book same-day COVID tests near you. Meanwhile, Solv Now can connect you with exceptional virtual providers in as little as 15 minutes, 24/7, for only $79 per visit.
Solv has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
- COVID Variants: What You Should Know (January 14, 2022) https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/a-new-strain-of-coronavirus-what-you-should-know
- Experts hope COVID-19 will evolve to be more like the common cold (January 12, 2022) https://www.npr.org/2022/01/12/1072372454/experts-hope-covid-19-will-evolve-to-be-more-like-the-common-cold
- We’re Not at Endemicity Yet (December 6, 2021) https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2021/12/covid-is-not-endemic-yet-and-may-not-be-for-a-long-time/620914/
- Epidemic, Endemic, Pandemic: What are the Differences? (February 9, 2021) https://www.publichealth.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/epidemic-endemic-pandemic-what-are-differences
- What Does Endemic Mean and Will COVID-19 Become an Endemic Disease? (December 31, 2021) https://www.wsj.com/articles/will-covid-19-become-endemic-11636222687
- Endemicity Is Meaningless (February 1, 2022) https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2022/02/endemicity-means-nothing/621423/
- California changes its COVID strategy and announces a plan to live with the virus (February 18, 2022) https://www.npr.org/2022/02/18/1081655623/california-adopts-nations-first-endemic-virus-policy#:~:text=SACRAMENTO%2C%20Calif.,mandated%20masking%20and%20business%20shutdowns
- We’re Entering the Control Phase of the Pandemic (February 17, 2022) theatlantic.com/science/archive/2022/02/living-with-covid-control-phase-pandemic/622843/