While Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to drop in the United States, deaths have hit record highs. Still, some government officials and health experts are saying Covid-19 is nearing endemicity in the United States.
Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations drop
According to CDC data, between Jan. 15 and Jan. 19, the seven-day average of new Covid-19 cases dropped from around 798,000 to around 744,000.
"Overall nationally, the case numbers are coming down, which I consider an optimistic trend," said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.
In addition, Covid-19 hospitalizations are also starting to drop nationwide, with U.S. hospitals reporting around 150,000 Covid-19 patients on Wednesday compared with 160,000 the week before, the Washington Post reports.
However, Rick Pollack, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association, cautioned that even though hospitalizations are starting to drop in some parts of the country, the coronavirus hasn't been defeated.
"That's like going from a crisis to a serious emergency," he said. "It's not exactly a good situation—hardly out of the woods."
Many hospitals in the United States are still experiencing serious staff shortages. According to the Post, around 22% of hospitals in the West are reporting critical staff shortages, while 19% of hospitals in the South and Midwest and 14% in the Northeast are reporting the same.
Hospitals are also experiencing supply shortages, which have been caused by high hospital admission rates, staff shortages, difficulties obtaining raw materials, and delays in transportation, according to David Hargraves, SVP of supply chain for Premier.
Covid-19 death rates rise
Meanwhile, Covid-19 deaths, which tend to lag hospitalizations, continue to rise, hitting record levels in some areas of the United States, the Washington Post reports. The seven-day average for new Covid-19 deaths hit 2,267 on Thursday, the highest rate since last February. In total there have been more than 878,000 Covid-19 deaths in the United States, the highest death total of any country.
"Omicron will push us over a million deaths," said Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California, Irvine. "That will cause a lot of soul searching. There will be a lot of discussion about what we could have done differently, how many of the deaths were preventable."
"In a pre-pandemic world, during some flu seasons, we see 10,000 or 15,000 deaths. We see that in the course of a week sometimes with Covid," said Nicholas Reich, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Massachusetts, Amhurst, who aggregates coronavirus projections for the Covid-19 Forecast Hub. "The toll and the sadness and suffering is staggering and very humbling."
While research has found omicron tends to cause milder cases of Covid-19, Walensky noted that, "importantly, 'milder' does not mean 'mild.'"
"I don't know if people understand how sick you can become if you are unvaccinated," said Julie Watson, CMO for Integris. "The reason they succumb to this illness is their body overreacts. Fluid in the lungs, kidneys shut down, and there’s times you can't bring patients back from that. But when you are vaccinated, your body has gotten the blueprints for how to kill the enemy."
Has the pandemic entered an endemic phase?
However, with Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations dropping nationwide, some government officials and health experts have said the pandemic is starting to move towards an endemic phase.
"We're not going to manage this to zero," said New Jersey Gov. Philip Murphy (D). "We have to learn how to live with this."
Similarly, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said the United States needs to start treating the coronavirus as endemic, paying close attention to emerging variants. Hutchinson added the federal government should help states increase testing capacity and improve access to treatments.
"That's where the federal government needs to step up," Hutchinson said. "Let's take advantage of this going down to be prepared for what's around the corner."
Meanwhile, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said he believes Covid-19 case rates are "going to continue to come down as we get into the spring and the summer," and the United States should start thinking about removing some restrictions in place.
Gottlieb added that he believes people will resume normal lives "hopefully this spring," adding that "we don't see anything on the horizon that's going to dramatically alter that trajectory."
World Health Organization (WHO) regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, said in a statement that, while the pandemic is "far from over," he's "hopeful we can end the emergency phase in 2022 and address other health threats that urgently require our attention."
Kluge added that he believes "a new wave could no longer require the return to pandemic-era, population-wide lockdowns or similar measures."
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he thinks outbreaks in the coming months will be more manageable, to a point where "they're there, but they don't disrupt society."
However, Fauci added that current numbers don't indicate the United States has "sufficient control" of the virus and needs to reach a point where it doesn't "dominate" our lives. "That is not where we are at this point. So we still have a way to go," Fauci said.
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he believes the emergency phase of the pandemic could end once every country has at least 70% of its population vaccinated—a benchmark met by about 40 countries so far.
However, Tedros added, "It is dangerous to assume that omicron will be the last variant, or that we are in the endgame." (Johnson, Associated Press, 1/28; Beachum et al., Washington Post, 1/26; Nirappil et al., Washington Post, 1/26; DePasquale, New York Times, 1/31; Rai, The Hill, 1/28; Shammas et al., Washington Post, 1/26; Suliman, Washington Post, 1/25)