Is the COVID-19 pandemic over? Yale experts weigh in
Affiliates at the Yale School of Public Health and political science department discuss whether the COVID-19 pandemic is truly over.
Cate Roser, Staff Illustrator
In a September interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” program, President Biden declared that the COVID-19 pandemic had come to an end. His remarks were met with firm reservations and retracted shortly after by the White House.
Amid changing attitudes regarding the virus’ future landscape, the News spoke with several members of the Yale community, across disciplines and backgrounds, to weigh in on whether the pandemic can be considered officially over.
What is the present situation?
Mark Schlesinger, professor of health policy and a fellow of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, explained that around 500 people are still dying from COVID-19 each day in the United States alone. Under present circumstances, it might seem inhumane and even disrespectful to allude to the pandemic being “over,” he said.
“Even setting aside the emotional overtones, when a pandemic becomes endemic (though most recent estimates being that about 94% of Americans have had at least a brush with COVID to date), that does not mean that the pandemic is over, since each new variant represents its own distinctive challenges and threats,” Schlesinger wrote to the News.
Schlesinger continued to explain that in this sense the pandemic might never be over but very few would want to say that with candor because of the toll since the pandemic began.
Moreover, for immunocompromised individuals, the privilege of assigning and debating a defined end to the pandemic was never theirs in the first place, according to Arden Parrish ’25.
While they understand that more people will want to “pretend that the pandemic never happened” as cases decrease, the attitude also puts immunocompromised students like themself — who are more prone to infection and severe side effects — in a vulnerable position, they said.
Parrish emphasized that Yale has actually “moved backwards” in its response to accommodate immunocompromised students during COVID-19, mentioning that professors have stopped making lecture recordings available. Many have also reinstated “old ableist” attendance policies, they said, that punish sick students for missing class and thereby force classmates to show up with contagious illnesses.
“Yale in particular sacrificed the health and safety of our most vulnerable members,” Parrish said. “The pandemic proved that it is possible to have a learning environment that does not discriminate against disabled or immunocompromised students in these ways, and it’s frustrating to watch our school reverting back to the way things were before even though COVID is very much still present on our campus.”
Cases are likely to rise as we head into the winter months, shared Yale Sterling Professor of immunobiology Akiko Iwasaki. Many indoor places are not requiring masks and do not have adequate ventilation or humidification, creating optimal conditions for virus transmission.
Is the course of the pandemic relevant?
According to Cary Gross, professor of medicine and public health and director of National Clinician Scholars Program at Yale, the question of when the pandemic is over is a symptom of the very thinking that has led to America’s fragmented, suboptimal response to COVID-19.
“By perpetuating the fallacy that the pandemic will have a clear finish line — and that line may be just around the corner — we risk delaying important work that needs to be done,” Gross told the News. “We need to revamp and reinvest in our public health system to enable preventive options. We have to ensure access to healthcare and address the fact that our nation’s health care system is more fragile than we had thought.”
Gross drew attention to the importance of carefully monitoring COVID-19 transmission, hospitalization and death rates moving forward — and using these rates as guidelines for assessing risk and adjusting the flexibility of our day-to-day routines. Ultimately, politicians, scientists and citizens must persist in doing the hard work of revamping America’s approach to pandemics now and in the future, he said.
What will constitute the end of the pandemic?
According to STAT, the end of a pandemic is usually defined by a point when human immune systems have become adapted to fight against the most fatal manifestations of an infection. Traditionally, when contraction with the disease causes a milder illness, the pandemic becomes endemic and is less concerning.
Political science professor Gregory Huber believes there are two different ways to think about the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under strict definitions of the word “pandemic,” COVID-19 may no longer qualify as a “novel” virus as more populations worldwide acquire immunity from exposure or vaccination. Despite widespread outbreaks, particularly among undervaccinated populations, COVID-19 may simply be understood as an endemic virus, ebbing and flowing like the seasonal flu.
“Another way to think about the COVID-19 pandemic as having ended is behavioral — the widespread disruption of human activity has subsided,” Huber wrote to the News. “This does not mean that COVID-19 is not a threat to many, but for those for whom the disease is less threatening, the extreme behaviors that we took to reduce the risk of disease are no longer worth the social cost.”
What measures should the public maintain moving forward in regards to stopping the spread of COVID-19?
Sumaira Akbarzada SPH ’21 agreed that the declining public consciousness of COVID-19 can be rooted in psychology. She explained that widespread depression and isolation have perpetuated an exhaustion and a desire to move on prematurely, with many Americans thinking that it is no longer worth it to continue practices such as self-isolation and social distancing.
“Vaccinations cannot and will not provide 100 percent immunity, and vaccinated individuals can still carry the virus and infect others, even if … asymptomatic,” she said. “Therefore, it’s very important for public health … experts to continue educating the public and working directly with policymakers on the national level, to make sure mitigating the spread [of] COVID-19 is still a priority in this country.”
In an interview with the News, Shaper Mirza, associate professor of biology at the School of Science and Engineering at Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan, also compared COVID-19’s long-term survival to the flu.
Mirza, who won the World Bank’s grant in 2020 for her research in COVID-19 epidemiology, echoed Akbarzada in saying that although immunization might weaken the virulence of the disease, it does not chart an end to the pandemic.
She urged the public to watch out for more virulent variants that can breach immunities developed post-infection or post-immunization, affirming that self-education is critical to the international conscience of a world sustaining its fight against the pandemic.
As of the morning of Nov. 28, 3,007 people in New Haven have passed away from COVID-19-related complications.