Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: COVID: What now?

by Dr. Chris Martin

We’ve entered an odd new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the one hand, life is much more normal in many ways. Indeed, President Biden has recently pronounced the pandemic to be over. But, with about 25,000 Americans hospitalized and more than 300 dying each day, COVID continues to exact a terrible toll.

With this new virus here to stay, we can no longer think that there will come a time when COVID is gone completely. So, what does the future hold and what should we be doing for the long term? Our experience with another virus, influenza (the “flu”), can offer some useful insights and guidance.

When it first appeared in late 2019, no one had ever had COVID-19 before. With people’s immune systems unable to provide any protection, infection rates were very high, as was the risk of becoming seriously ill and dying from infection. But, by April 2022, most Americans had been infected. Add to that the nearly 80% who have received at least one dose of a vaccine, the situation now is very different.

When people get COVID today, most of them have immune systems that are primed to recognize the virus, and the sickness they experience is less severe. Of course, this does not mean that a new COVID variant isn’t lurking in our future that could change all of this, just as we experienced with delta and omicron. The same has happened periodically with the flu, most notoriously during the 1918 pandemic. So, while we will always have some of amount COVID circulating, just like the flu, we face a future with the risk of additional surges or pandemics from either virus.

The good news is the tools that we use to fight the flu help with COVID, too. For decades, we have tracked the flu virus as it circulates around the globe each year. We determine what strains we think are likely to circulate for the upcoming flu season and adjust the vaccine we begin to administer in the fall accordingly. This is a remarkable effort as it means making and administering hundreds of millions of doses of a new vaccine every year.

The same approach is currently underway with the new COVID vaccine boosters, which have been modified to provide better protection against omicron. So, just as it is important to get your flu shot, the same will likely be true for a COVID shot each year.

On a day-to-day level, the measures we have long used to reduce the transmission of flu — such as mask-wearing, hand-washing, keeping 6 feet away from others and staying home when sick — are also effective to reduce the transmission of COVID.

We have had extremely low levels of flu during the COVID pandemic because these measures were so widely implemented. Those at greater risk for severe COVID are the same groups at risk for severe flu — the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions or weakened immune systems. Special precautions will be needed to protect these more vulnerable members of the community.

So, when people ask me what they should be doing about COVID now, I reply, “What would you do for the flu?”

Dr. Chris Martin is the director of the Global Engagement Office and a professor at the a professor at the West Virginia University School of Public Health and School of Medicine.