Senior Health and COVID-19: Is the Pandemic Over?
As we head into the third year of dealing with COVID-19, men and women 60 and over continue to remain guarded about the transmission of this potentially deadly virus and their susceptibility to it. As has been the case throughout the pandemic years, there remains some level of confusion in regard to the novel coronavirus and what seniors need to do to best protect their health and wellness. There is even confusion as to whether or not the COVID-19 pandemic itself is over. In this article, we present authoritative information from Harvard Medical School about the state and status of the pandemic that has hung over our lives for well over two years.
Definition of Pandemic
Before diving into whether or not we officially are through the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to understand what is meant by the term “pandemic.” And that’s where we encounter our first problem in determining where we are at in regard to the coronavirus pandemic. According to Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing:
As strange as it may seem, there is no single, agreed-upon definition of pandemic that all countries, public health agencies, and world leaders use. The word itself comes from the Greek words pan (meaning all) and demos (meaning people), which makes sense: a key feature of a pandemic is that it can affect just about everyone.
Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School. As a practicing rheumatologist for over 30 years, Dr. Shmerling engaged in a mix of patient care, teaching, and research.
Additional common definitions include:
- An outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area (multiple countries or continents) and typically affects a significant proportion of the population (Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary)
- A sudden outbreak that becomes widespread and affects a whole region, a continent, or the world due to a susceptible population (MedicineNet.com)
- A disease prevalent throughout an entire country, continent, or the whole world (dictionary.com)
These standard definitions aren’t particularly specific. For example, what does “multiple countries” or “a whole region” really mean when it comes to determining the start and end of a pandemic? How prevalent or widespread does a disease have to be to be considered a pandemic, to determine when a pandemic starts, and to ascertain when it ends?
Even if we could all agree on its definition, there is another important reality to bear in mind. In today’s world, no single person, government agency, or public health organization has the authority to declare that a pandemic has begun or ended.
From Pandemic to Endemic: Personal Estimations
There are some people, including healthcare professionals, that suggest that a pandemic ends when everyone (or nearly all people) are behaving as though the health crisis has concluded. For example, people are no longer:
- Taking precautions associated with the pandemic
- Subject to restrictions that were imposed because of the pandemic
- Changing behavior in the manner that occurred during the pandemic
Pandemic Become Endemic
There are instances in which what once was a worldwide pandemic becomes an endemic. What this means is that the infection remains present in certain regions or among specific populations. However, the infection no longer involves large groups of people, the behavior of the infection (or virus) becomes predictable, and cases as well as, deaths no longer occur in spikes (involving quicker upticks in infections and deaths).
There is an evolution among the population when a pandemic becomes endemic. People learn to live with the virus as a fact of everyday life. Examples of this beyond COVID-19 are the flu and even the common cold.
In the final analysis, we probably do not know precisely when a pandemic has ended until some time from that occurrence actually passes. In other words, we don’t know whether or not a pandemic has ended until we can look back on the state of affairs associated with a virus and infection with the benefit of some (undefined) period of time.
Where Are We Today?
At the end of 2022 and into 2023, we really are not at a juncture at which we can say with absolute certainty that the COVID-19 pandemic has ended. There certainly are virologists who suggest that we are at this point in time. However, these are also virologists who say we have not crossed over the threshold from pandemic to endemic. As will be discussed in more detail in a moment, we not only are not at a juncture where we can make definitive statements about the state of the pandemic right now, we may not be at such a juncture for some time.
Currently, it is probably fair to say we are in the transition period between pandemic and endemic. We may well be in the time period that we will look upon in the future as being when pandemic became endemic, in regard to COVID-19.
Precautions for Seniors at This Time Between Pandemic and Endemic
Without making a definitive statement that the COVID-19 pandemic is over, or that it has transitioned to an endemic, there are safety precautions that senior men and women are advised to follow:
- Stay current with COVID-19 vaccinations
- Move indoor activities outdoors, whenever possible (particularly is you live in a community with high or rising COVID-19 cases)
- Wear a well-fitted mask in higher-risk settings, which include:
- Crowded indoor settings
- Traveling in crowded conditions (public transport and airplanes, for example)
- When around a number of people whose COVID status is not known
You also need to isolate yourself if you have symptoms of COVID-19, before you take a test to confirm your status. You also need to isolate if you test positive for the coronavirus.
The bottom line, according to Dr. Shmerling, is that there remains significant uncertainty about the COVID-19 pandemic. That uncertainty is apt to linger for more time, perhaps even an extended period of time. Until there is more clarity, we cannot conclude that the pandemic is behind us at this time.