As the world heads into the second year of the pandemic — with yet another spike in cases and a new, more contagious variant running rampant — there seems to be no end in sight for the mayhem COVID-19 has caused. Now, with COVID expected to become a fixture — and considering how fast the omicron variant spreads – many are wondering if life with COVID is the new normal.
“We’re never going to be able to eradicate or eliminate COVID, so we have to learn how to live with it,’ said Dr. Richina Bicette, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “Before COVID 19 was a thing, Coronavirus was around. If you look at some of the top household products, some of them ‘used to say kill coronaviruses.’ So that family of viruses has always been around. It just has found a way to morph into a new, more vicious, more dangerous disease that can affect humans.”
Early in the pandemic, many people held out hope that COVID-19 would be a thing of the past once vaccines rolled out. But hope for a zero-COVID country has fizzled for most experts.
“I don’t think it’s impossible to think that there are people that are never going to contract COVID. But I do think that we probably are going to have to figure out a way to function with, and around it,” Dr. Bicette said.
Moving from a pandemic to an endemic
Health experts now expect the virus to circulate indefinitely with lower and more predictable case numbers — a status known as endemicity. That would make the coronavirus like many other viruses that humanity has learned to deal with, such as influenza.
In fact, government and public health officials are already operating with that idea in mind. There has been a shift from stopping the virus’s spread with things like mask mandates and lockdown, to a focus more on reducing risk and allowing the vaccinated and the boosted to go on with relatively normal lives with precautions.
That does not, however, mean people should stop taking preventive measures, experts say. Instead, they are beginning to consider a future in which COVID precautions, such as masking and social distancing, could become somewhat common. Vaccinations would remain central, as would precautions for vulnerable people. But the bottom line is to figure out ways to lower your risk.
“Of course not interacting with people who are not in your household is something that you can do to lower your risk and making sure that everyone else in your household is on the same page, but that’s difficult for most people. We have jobs. We have to go to a grocery store. We have activities for our children. So staying locked up is not really realistic,” Dr. Bicette said. “If you do have to interact with people who are not in your household, try to maintain your distance as best as possible. If you gather with friends or family members, do it in an outdoor setting. If you’re indoors, make sure you’re in a place with high ventilation. Wear high quality masks and just practicing overall good hygiene. Things like washing your hands, making sure to cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze, the things that we were taught as children that seemed to have fallen by the wayside.”
The pandemic has forced changes to every aspect of our life — from how and where we work to who cares for our children to how we worship or spend time with loved ones. Activities have gone virtual. Society has adapted with Zoom calls, working from home, gathering outside, wearing masks. All that change means people have become more flexible and can respond better going forward.
Dr. Lateefah Watford, a psychiatrist in the Behavioral Health Department at Kaiser Permanente, said we can no longer expect life to return to pre-COVID normal.
“I think for me as a psychiatrist and a person, as a parent and wife, I have to step back and say this is where we are, and I can only say what’s going on right now. What’s normal before is never going to be normal again and that’s okay,” said Watford. “To accept that, and not think this time it’s going to be over and going away, it’s just not. And truly acknowledging that will help us move forward.”
Experts say the same coping tips recommended during challenging times are still valid but may be more important than ever during a pandemic. Watford said it’s important to continue to reduce stress and avoid burnout, by doing things you enjoy — such as exercising, reading, cooking. Mindfulness can also be helpful. And many experts point to a practice of gratitude and focusing on what we have and what we can do, not on what we don’t and can’t.
As people try to move forward and accept the reality of the lasting pandemic, the toll of the past months has been grueling, even traumatic. Loved ones have died. Many people who caught the virus are dealing with a constellation of long-haul symptoms. Many kids have returned to school but are still reeling from pandemic-induced isolation and academic gaps.
“I’m encouraging my patients to give themselves grace,” Watford said. “No one says let’s have a pandemic that will kill millions of people and destroy everything we thought as normal. To think you were not affected is ridiculous. Allow yourself to acknowledge how the pandemic has truly impacted you and allow yourself time to heal.”
Already the U.S. is sending signals that it’s on the road to whatever will become the new normal. The Biden administration said there are enough tools — vaccine boosters, new treatments and masking — to handle even the omicron threat without the shutdowns of the pandemic’s earlier days.
And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just reduced to five days the time that people with COVID-19 must stay in isolation so they don’t sicken others, saying it’s become clear they’re most contagious early on.
Omicron is so hugely mutated that it is slipping past some of the protection of vaccinations or prior infection. But Dr. William Moss of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health expects “this virus will kind of max out” in its ability to make such big evolutionary jumps. “I don’t see this as kind of an endless cycle of new variants.”
One possible future many experts see: In the post-pandemic period, the virus causes colds for some and more serious illness for others, depending on their overall health, vaccine status and prior infections. Mutations will continue and might eventually require boosters every so often that are updated to better match new variants. But human immune systems will continue to get better at recognizing and fighting back. Immunologist Ali Ellebedy at Washington University finds hope in the body’s amazing ability to remember germs it’s seen before and create multi-layer defenses.
Ellebedy said as breakthrough infections inevitably continue, there will be a drop in severe illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths — regardless of the next variant.
“We are not the same population that we were in December of 2019,” he said. “It’s different ground now.”
Think of a wildfire tearing through a forest after a drought, he said. That was 2020. Now, even with omicron, “it’s not completely dry land,” but wet enough “that made the fire harder to spread.”
He foresees a day when someone gets a coronavirus infection, stays home two to three days “and then you move on. That hopefully will be the endgame.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Let the People Be Heard
Readers weigh in on whether living with COVID is the ‘new normal.’
“I’m not taking it as seriously as I did in 2020. I am cautious but not fearful. I’ve had it and beat it, thank God, but I’m not locked in my house. I’m not wearing masks everywhere. I’m enjoying life and learning to live with it.” – Ashara Ylana
“I don’t ignore facts and science. I consider it in the same vein as flu — a virus that keeps mutating each year to survive. So, it’s something we will likely have to live with indefinitely or forever.” – Edwina Putney
“I believe we will gradually get back to normal but it could take years.” – Gwen Richardson
“I just mask up, got boosted, limit the people I interact with (I was doing that before COVID), and continue with my life. Eventually it will become seasonal like the flu.” — JoAnn Hardnett
“I’ve never been the same after contracting it. So I am taking it extremely seriously. And I do believe it’s the new norm. At least for me.” – Candice Ordered Steps Johnson
“I am on the flipside of my bell curve. I initially took it very seriously. After being fully vaccinated, I relaxed a bit on my mask-wearing and getting out. But as cases are skyrocketing, I am becoming more serious about my mask-wearing and hand-sanitizing.” – Nicole Ball
“This is our new normal. I am fearful for my elderly mother and my grandchildren. My grandchildren have been exposed in the classroom and my 4-year old granddaughter thinks this is part of life.” — Traci Lynn Manigault
“COVID is never going away or so it seems. I’m a healthcare worker and we can’t catch a break. It’s exhausting. This is our new normal. I take it just as seriously now as I did when it first started.” — D’Nisha Smith
“We had a Christmas gathering now everyone over 60 at the gathering has COVID. Thankfully everyone who contracted it is vaxxed, symptoms are mostly mild. I am way more picky about who I share space with.” — Cindy Williams-Dsouza
“It’s here forever, however it will become a normal part of our immunizations. I take it very seriously, we have lost family members; those numbers are different when some of yours are included.” — Kim Sifinski
“Definitely think it’s our new normal. I’m not afraid or worried about what that means with the exception of how it has drastically impacted education and the future of our kids, little to no socialization, falling behind in academics, etc. I trust God and medicine so with the exception of taking a few extra precautions due to my pregnancy, I still have intentions on safely enjoying my life versus being locked away from the world.” – Brittney Holmes Jackson
“Because people refuse to follow the rules I do believe this is our new normal. When COVID first started I took it very serious…but after getting vaccinated I kind of fell off with being extra cautious. But since this Omicron variant…I’m back to taking it seriously. They’re so many people with COVID now it’s scary.” – Qiana Groves