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After three years, when will COVID become endemic?

(NewsNation) — COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency nearly three years ago, and although researchers and medical professionals have made strides in prevention and treatment, it’s unclear when the virus could level out.

As of Friday, the U.S. was home to a weekly average of more than 5,400 hospitalizations and 2,700 deaths attributed to COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There were 231,435 deaths attributed to the virus this week, compared to 463,203 deaths during the same time last year, according to the CDC.

Getting to endemic levels of infection could still be years away, and it’s sure to require more research and new recruits to the medical field, said Craig Klugman, a health sciences professor at DePaul University.

“It’s not going away,” he said. “And so we need funding and we need people to do that work.”

What does ‘endemic’ mean?

“Endemic” is a term used to describe the amount of a particular disease that is usually present in a community. Essentially, it’s the baseline, constant presence of a disease within a specific region. The virus’ presence becomes steady and predictable, not unlike the regular flu season.

There’s no general consensus on the conditions for meeting that benchmark, according to the Center on Foreign Relations.

It’s noteworthy, too, that infection rates can still remain high in an endemic so long as they’re static.

Are we close?

It’s hard to know. A virus like COVID-19 will require much more research to understand and predict, Klugman said.

“We’re still having 350 deaths per day and we’re still having tens of thousands of cases every day,” he said. “We’re still at a very high level. COVID is still one of the top five causes of death in the United States. I’m not sure that’s the place that we want to be at.”

What experts do know is this: The more transmission there is, the more mutations there are. The more mutations there are, the more likely it is that a variant will develop that can evade the drugs and vaccines currently in place to fight COVID-19, Klugman said.

That means in the meantime, precautions such as wearing a mask, staying up to date with vaccines and boosters and being mindful of large gatherings offer the best chance of curbing transmission.

“We don’t get to decide,” Klugman said. “The virus decides. We have to have patience, kindness and compassion for ourselves and for others as we go through this threat to our lives and to the way we’re used to living. It’s not going to be back to normal for a very long time. So we need to adapt just the way that virus adapts.”

What would it take to get there?

It can be easier to identify endemic levels retroactively, once that baseline level of infection has had a chance to establish itself.

Sometimes this happens when the community is protected by prior infection or vaccination. In the U.S., however, just more than 14% of people eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine have received an updated booster shot, according to the CDC.

Heading into the winter season, however, some researchers at Johns Hopkins are projecting 60,000-70,000 COVID-19 and flu hospitalizations during a peak weak near the end of December.

Health experts have also raised concerns about vaccines’ reduced efficacy against newer COVID-19 variants should they continue to develop.

That’s part of the reason experts are warning against prematurely treating the virus as endemic.

“It is a privilege to say that you’re done with it,” Klugman said. “There are people who are seniors, people who are immunocompromised, people who have multiple health conditions, who don’t get that luxury.”

Health officials have cautioned the public to maintain COVID-19 safety measures as the winter season and its indoor holiday gatherings approach.

President Joe Biden on Thursday announced the administration’s Winter Preparedness Plan, which included efforts to expand access to tests and vaccines. Although COVID-19 isn’t as disruptive as it was when it first emerged, Biden on Thursday emphasized that the virus has continued to evolve.

“Cases are on the rise again as families are spending more time indoors and gathering for the holidays,” the White House said in an official statement. “Throughout the COVID-19 response, this Administration has been prepared for whatever the virus throws our way — and this moment is no different.”