When will we no longer be in a pandemic?
TORONTO -- As Canada's COVID-19 cases curve downward while vaccination rates rise, the end of the pandemic might seem near, at least when it comes to the virus’s worst outcomes and lockdowns that seem endless.
But when can a pandemic be declared ‘over’ from a global standpoint?
Experts say equitable global access to vaccines is needed, among other safety practices, for normal life to resume.
After entering a third wave in late March, Canada is now seeing a steady decline in cases. With vaccination eligibility increasing across the country and an upsurge of COVID-19 vaccine shipments from Pfizer and Moderna, Canada has 48 per cent of the population vaccinated with at least one dose as of Thursday afternoon.
Dr. Ashleigh Tuite, an infectious disease epidemiologist based in Toronto, said the vaccines are a “game changer” for Canada and its path to creating more normalcy.
“I think we are heading towards the end of the pandemic in a sense that the virus will still be with us, but it’s not going to be causing the huge disruptions that it’s causing right now because we are vaccinating our population and we’re building up that immunity,” Tuite told CTVNews.ca.
“We’re really on pace to have a large segment of our population vaccinated, fully, by the end of the summer.”
SHIFT TO SEASONAL DISEASE
Tuite says the presence of COVID-19 can still exist even after the pandemic is over, but it could shift to a seasonal disease that's similar to the flu in the long term.
“We’ll hopefully have a large fraction of our population vaccinated so that the virus can still be here and will still circulate and can still cause outbreaks, but we’re not going to be in a pandemic situation.”
Meanwhile,other countries around the world are continuing to be heavily impacted by the virus.
India is currently leading the world in the highest number of daily cases and deaths.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a pandemic is defined as a disease that spreads worldwide. Until there is no worldwide spread of the disease in other countries, it will still be considered a pandemic.
“It’s a global phenomenon, and it’s going to continue until we have immunity worldwide,” said Tuite.
“As much as vaccines will protect us in Canada in the short to medium term, until we have a widespread global immunity we are going to have to continue to monitor the virus, particularly looking for emergence of concerning variants.”
EQUITABLE ACCESS TO VACCINES
Similar to Tuite, Dr. Danielle Ompad, associate professor of epidemiology at the New York University School of Global Public Health, said that immunity is needed all over the world to get life back to how it was before, and attributes part of the ongoing outbreaks to inequitable access to vaccines.
“One of the biggest issues is the distribution of vaccines and making sure that all countries have access to the vaccine and are able to reach herd immunity for their populations and their communities,” Ompad told CTVNews.ca. “There are some countries that don’t have vaccines yet or their vaccine rollout has been slow, often limited by the number of vaccines available, so I think that is one of the key things to get us closer to normal.”
For countries that are starting to build immunity and have lower case numbers, Ompad says it’s important to remember that it’s “not going to be over until it’s over everywhere.”
“I think what people forget is that a pandemic is a worldwide epidemic. So the pandemic is not going to be over until it's over everywhere,” she said.
“We need to make sure that the vaccine is distributed globally. It has not been equitable distribution, so countries that can, should contribute in some way to that effort…we need to continue to support our friends and colleagues and families in other countries.”
WHEN WILL COVID-19 BECOME ENDEMIC?
WHO says that if the disease is controlled to a particular area, it turns into an epidemic, however the virus would still be transmissible and there is a high risk that it could translate into a pandemic again. If the disease is present in an area but is able to be controlled, such as the flu, it will then be considered an endemic.
Even when countries enter the endemic stage, there is a possibility of booster shots that might need to be taken in order to maintain immunity against COVID-19. Ompad says that in addition to this, we will need to continue taking measures to prevent outbreaks from occurring again and to return to “normal” life.
“If it is determined that we do need boosters, then we would definitely want to get those so we could prevent another pandemic related to COVID-19,” she said.
“But, we have these variants that are coming out. Right now it seems like the vaccines are relatively protective against the variants but that could change, so we’re still going to have to be vigilant about COVID-19.”