Even before the omicron surge started fading dramatically in New Jersey three weeks ago, there have been suggestions by some local and state lawmakers and others to drop all pandemic emergency health restrictions and treat COVID as an endemic disease, similar to seasonal flu.

According to Rutgers University infectious disease expert and epidemiologist Dr. Stanley H. Weiss, an endemic disease remains present in a population, and cases can still spike, but it’s at a lower level than in a pandemic scenario, when the disease will spread rapidly around the world.

Endemic or pandemic?

While COVID infections and hospitalizations have dropped recently, especially in the Garden State, he pointed out the virus continues to cause moderate and severe illness and death here and throughout the globe, so we are most certainly still in a pandemic.

Dr. Weiss said when we speak of an infection that’s endemic it means the illness is not going away and “some people have had immunologic activity against the virus, either due to vaccines or natural infection, and so they have some degree of resistance.”

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If that sounds like what’s going on with COVID right now, he said that’s correct but we have to remember with this virus “we’ve seen an incredible ability to mutate and therefore I don’t think we’re out of the woods in terms of variants that we’ll be seeing, which gives it the opportunity to blossom out once again.”

And that would suggest a pandemic scenario that is ongoing.

He noted in states like New Jersey, about 70% of the population is fully vaccinated, and more than a million individuals have had COVID, but in many poor nations around the world only about 10% of the population has received a single dose of vaccine, which keeps the door open for COVID to spread and mutate.

Dr. Weiss said this means in the Garden State “I think it’s already an endemic disease that’s not going to disappear, there will be persistence of this type of infectious agent I think indefinitely.”

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When asked if he believes COVID can simultaneously be an endemic disease in some areas while a worldwide pandemic continues, which New Jersey is a part of, he replied “I think so.”

Will the pandemic ever really end?

He also noted it’s very difficult to predict if we will ever be able to stop using the term pandemic with COVID because the virus has shown the ability to spread explosively and “there are a substantial number of people who refuse to be vaccinated, they remain at very high risk of becoming infected and developing serious illness or dying.”

Dr. Weiss said we may continue to see several significant variants emerge in the coming months and years, which would be another reason for the term pandemic to continue to be in play, perhaps indefinitely.

He added no matter whether you consider COVID to be an endemic illness or not, we are still in a pandemic and the virus continues to pose a significant health threat.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.

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