Opinion | When Can We Declare the Pandemic Over?

By Aaron E. Carroll

Dr. Carroll is a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine and a contributing opinion writer. He writes often on health research and policy.

During the pandemic, good management and guidance have often been lacking. If we want to make our exit from the crisis better than our entrance and passage through it, we’ve got to start planning now. A good first step would be to agree on our definition of an ending.

When can we declare the pandemic over?

Not yet, of course. Cases are stalled or rising in many areas. Virus variants are becoming more prevalent. While many people are vaccinated, many more are not. Hospitalizations and deaths are still occurring, especially in those groups not yet fully immunized. Community spread is far too rampant, and risks still abound. Recently the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, warned of “impending doom” from a fourth surge if we aren’t careful.

But things are significantly better than they were a few months ago. As we continue to improve, it would be useful to have guidance on how we might ease the policies that have kept us protected.

Too many people, though, are unwilling to talk about any lowering of our guard — even in the future — because some danger still exists. They want to know that no one is dying of Covid-19 in their community anymore, or they want to know that there are no cases in the area and that there is no chance of their being exposed.

I understand the sentiment, as we have been overwhelmed with messaging about how dangerous Covid-19 is. But the sentiment is not realistic, nor is it reasonable. Such extreme vigilance can also backfire: Each day we wait, more people become impatient and abandon their posts.

Normal has never meant “perfectly safe.” A safer world will likely still have Covid-19 in it.

Ideally, we should reduce restrictions gradually while we closely monitor the situation. First, we might liberalize outdoor gatherings and open schools and maybe even camps more fully. If all goes well, we could allow for denser indoor public events, with masks. We could allow restaurants and bars to increase to full capacity in stages.

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