How Will We Know When the Pandemic is 'Over'?

John Whyte, MD; William Schaffner, MD


November 23, 2021

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JOHN WHYTE: When will the pandemic end? I know that's on everyone's mind. How long will we continue like this? Will COVID be around forever? I've been asking myself that. I'm sure you've been doing it, as well.

I had the opportunity yesterday to talk to Dr. William Schaffner. He's become a friend over the last 20 months. I've had multiple conversations with him. And I posed that question, how do we know when the pandemic ends, directly to him. Take a listen at what he had to say.

Dr. Schaffner, how do we define mission accomplished? How do we know when it's time to say the pandemic is over? It's somewhat subjective, isn't it? Is it no cases? Is it 1,000 cases? Is it 100 deaths? What metrics would you use to say the pandemic is over and we can reduce a lot of the mitigation measures?

So for instance, people will bring up we're going to get our kids vaccinated, 5 to 11, in the schools. When does that mean they don't wear masks anymore? When does that mean they can resume some of the pre-pandemic activities that they used to participate in? What's the measure to say the pandemic is over?

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Well, the first thing is, John, because you're a professional communicator as well as a physician, you have to understand that language is important. When we say the pandemic is over, we have to make sure the public understands that that does not mean that the virus has disappeared and it's all gone. It means that this initial stage, this horrific stage of intense transmission with consequent illness is over and we have this virus under better control. This virus is going to be with us for the foreseeable future. So moving from pandemic to endemic is what you and I are talking about now.

And for that, I think we'll have a number of metrics. The first and most important will be, clearly, hospitalizations, hospitalizations across the entire age spectrum. The second will be the proportion of tests that are done that are positive. We want that to be lower than 5%. If it's more than that, it really means this virus is still being transmitted quite readily in the community.

At what level we'll finally level off, I'm not sure. And at the moment, I actually think there may be two levels. The first is lower in the very well vaccinated states, and the other is a bit higher in states such as mine, which is still not very well vaccinated. But I will tell you, there are lots of people here, even though we're not well vaccinated, who are just intensely going back to near normal activities already.

JOHN WHYTE: What do you say to folks who are tired of the daily case count, and they're saying stop with the "case-demic," so to speak, that, as you point out, it's really about hospitalizations. Are we doing damage by keep reporting the total number of daily cases, and in some ways people are just tuning it out?

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Well, there are two things going on here. The first is what's the impact on the health care system and all those deaths and serious illnesses, which we would like to avoid. And that's the hospitalization and the death statistic, clearly. The cases, however, are very important to public health.

They're telling us how readily this virus is still moving through our population. We all know that the vaccines prevent severe disease really very effectively. And they do diminish transmission, but not as much as we hoped. And so even though we're going to have, I hope, a very well vaccinated population, this virus will continue to smolder even among vaccinated people. And so trying to keep track of the virus and making sure no new variants crop up, that's very important.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, Dr. Schaffner, you and I have been talking for 20 months. You've been advising us at WebMD and Medscape, as well as the general public. I want to thank you for all that you're doing to help keep us safe. It's information that we need, and you present it in such a conversational as well as compelling way. So I want to thank you for that.

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Well, you're very kind, John. And I want to thank you and everybody at Medscape because you're helping getting the information out. We're partners in this.

JOHN WHYTE: And if you have questions, drop us a line. You can post on any of our social properties or email me at Thanks for watching.

This interview originally appeared on WebMD on November 23, 2021

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