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Are We Still in a Pandemic? Adjusting to the New COVID Normal

Among fluctuating COVID cases, ever-evolving variants and unclear masking policies, here’s what you need to know about where the pandemic stands.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been nothing short of unpredictable. While we’ve seen cases rise and fall over the past two years, the omicron surge of the winter felt particularly bleak. And although a wave of hope swept over the city of Philadelphia as cases fell and mask mandates were lifted, some are worried that we’re celebrating too soon.

Rising COVID Cases

Yes, cases have been rising once again, but is this really cause for concern? Infectious disease specialist Dr. John Zurlo has some insight. “We should watch COVID cases closely, but it’s important to keep in mind that with the popularity of at-home testing, we can’t depend on the number of cases we’re seeing like we could a year ago,” he says. “Hospitalizations, and even more importantly COVID patients in our ICUs, are really the most important things to keep an eye on—and currently those numbers are still relatively low in comparison with the peak of omicron.”

We now have more widespread immunity among our population, due to vaccination rates and the percentage of people who have been previously infected with the virus. “Things are a lot different than they were two years ago,” Dr. Zurlo says. “Now, with immunity rates so high, the vast majority of people who get COVID will experience symptoms resembling an upper respiratory tract infection. There is much less risk of severe disease for most people.”

At-Risk Populations

In Philadelphia, masking requirements have been confusing to say the least. But it is certain at-risk individuals who really need to worry most about continuing to mask. “Those who are still at risk of getting very sick with COVID include people who have undergone an organ transplant or therapy with immunosuppressant drugs, like chemotherapy, and older folks who have a series of medical problems, such as diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, heart disease or COPD,” says Dr. Zurlo.

Vaccinations can help with immunity for those who are at risk, but these individuals should still practice caution. In close environments such as crowded bars and restaurants or indoor gyms, Dr. Zurlo recommends that these high-risk people should continue wearing masks.

In addition, people in healthcare settings will need to continue to proceed with caution and wear a mask as directed. “While we still want to be careful, it’s important to resume your normal healthcare routine. You’re not likely to contract COVID when coming to a healthcare setting,” says Dr. Zurlo.

The New Normal

Recently, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, was quoted as saying that the U.S. is “out of the pandemic phase.” While it feels like we’re far from the normal that we knew before the pandemic, does this signify that we may be seeing a light at the end of the tunnel?

“I interpret Dr. Fauci’s comment as saying that we’re unlikely to see a major surge in cases again,” says Dr. Zurlo. “Omicron could have been a gift in disguise because it boosted the immunity in our population. We’ve all been wrong before about predicting what COVID will do, but I think we’re moving to adapt to a world with COVID.”

After a tough few years of social isolation, Dr. Zurlo believes it’s time to come together once again. “I think the city made the right decision to take away the mask mandate,” he says. “Humans are meant to socialize and gather. It’s beneficial to our mental and physical health, and I don’t think we should underestimate the importance of that.”

As far as the future of COVID, it’s hard to predict what may happen in the coming year. It may turn into a seasonal virus similar to the flu, where we’ll get a vaccine every year. “COVID probably won’t disappear, but vaccines and immunity from prior COVID infection will prevent high rates of hospitalization and those who do get infected won’t get very sick,” says Dr. Zurlo. “Barring another huge surge, it’s time to carry on with our lives.”

[Main photo credit: ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services]

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COVID-19, From the Experts