By: Diana Bello Aristizábal
Since the coronavirus pandemic arrived at the end of 2019, the world has ride on a roller coaster in which one day we are at the bottom when new cases and deaths decrease and measures are relaxed, while other days we reach the highest peak, due to the variant in turn, and life again becomes a bit chaotic.
Today, almost two years after the first case of coronavirus was found in this part of the world. People wonder what life would be like without masks, social distancing, and without refraining from going to certain places. Will we reach the long-awaited “normal” this year? And will the pandemic end in 2022?
According to Dr. Dadilia Garces, a medical epidemiologist at Miami-Dade College, that depends largely on our actions. “If we don’t reach a vaccination rate higher than the current one globally, new variants and waves will continue to appear that will lead us to resume measures such as the use of masks and social distancing.”
In the United States alone, the current vaccination rate is 60 percent. According to Dr. Garces, is still low considering there is a greater availability of vaccines in this country compared to other places like Africa, where the vaccination rate doesn’t even get to 4 percent.
But why is vaccination important? Because the virus feeds on unvaccinated people. “COVID-19 seeks to survive in any way. Unvaccinated people deliver information to the virus that allows it to continue circulating, mutating, and creating variants,” she explains.
In this sense, if the percentage of vaccinated people increases to 70 percent, which is the current goal, the possibility of new waves appearing would decrease and, in turn, the variants would become less and less aggressive although more contagious.
According to Robert Hernandez, an infectious disease specialist at Kendall Regional Hospital, vaccines reduce the possibility of patients ending up in a hospital or in an intensive care unit. “Contrary to what many continue to think, they do not prevent the person from becoming infected.”
But despite its important role, many wonder if the available vaccines, especially those of two doses, can be effective enough against the new variants or if others will be created in 2022 to fight the emerging variants.
To Dr. Garces, no new vaccines will be created for Omicron, which is the variant currently circulating, although it is still difficult to predict whether subsequent variants will require it. “That depends on mortality rates and the impact on hospital capacity. If negative figures are not seen on this regard, generally, this does not happen.”
And, will there be new variants in 2022? The experts consulted agree that between 2 or 3 could appear in 2022. “The number of mutations will be diluted, and the predominant variant, due to its high contagious capacity, will be the next one to be present worldwide,” states Dr. Hernandez.
Another issue that raises doubts is booster vaccines or the third dose. The general consensus is that once so many variants stop circulating and the virus is on its way to becoming endemic, that is, when it stops being massive and in turn is limited to small outbreaks at certain times of the year, it will be less necessary to put on so many boosters to keep the immune system high.
However, for Dr. Hernandez, this can vary from patient to patient. “Boosters are great for those who aren’t creating antibodies properly, but they’re not essential for everyone. If a person is young, in good health condition, received the complete initial vaccination schedule, and already had COVID-19, I don’t think they need a booster.”
It should be noted that oral treatments against coronavirus in the form of a pill would not replace the vaccine. This medicine, which is currently being developed by Pfizer, is indicated in the first days of the disease in order to reduce the probability that it will lead to a serious condition.
“It reduces symptoms but it doesn’t create immunity like the vaccine, which purpose is to train the body to fight back,” explains Dr. Garces, assuring that it could be available for the first quarter of the year, no later than March, if it has the approval of the FDA and the CDC.
An increasingly less lethal virus
It’s a fact that arriving to a final answer about when the pandemic could end is complicated because it depends on many factors, some of which are currently unclear. However, it is possible to predict what course it would take this year and what the “new normal” would look like in December.
First of all, it must be clarified that this virus will not be eradicated, but rather it will become endemic. However, this scenario will only materialize when the mortality rate in the population decreases significantly.
“It is expected that with each strain, the mortality rate will decrease more and more, just as with influenza. Protection measures will be less drastic the less deadly the virus is,” says Dr. Hernandez.
For this purpose, not only vaccines but also masks play a role. These are made to cut off the transmission of the virus, which, in turn, slows down the rate of infection. For this reason, for the moment and until the health authorities indicate otherwise, the recommendation is to continue using masks, especially in closed and crowded spaces.
“The virus spreads in closed spaces without ventilation, so if a person is, for example, in a restaurant where there is normally little air circulation, it can create a high-risk environment by not using masks even if there is social distancing,” points out Dr. Hernandez.
But in the mid-term, we would be able to live without a mask, and the pandemic could begin to weaken. “I estimate that by this Christmas, we should be closer to what our life was like before COVID-19. That is, we will be able to meet without wearing a mask. If people continue to vaccinate and wear face masks today, we will enter the final phase of the virus this year before it becomes endemic,” says Dr. Garces.