COVID-19 death toll passes 6 million; Mayo expert discusses endemic outlook

As the global COVID-19 death toll passes 6 million, an infectious disease specialist discussed the possibility — and likelihood — of COVID-19 becoming endemic.

Six things to know:

1. The worldwide COVID-19 death toll passed 6 million March 7, as recorded by Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University. The milestone comes as the pandemic officially enters its third year. 

2. As of March 8, the U.S. has recorded 960,352 virus deaths — about 16 percent of the worldwide toll. 

3. As U.S. COVID-19 cases decline from the omicron-driven surge peak in mid-January, Jack O'Horo, MD, infectious disease specialist at Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic, answered questions on what a transition from the pandemic stage to an endemic stage would mean. The CDC defines a pandemic as "an event in which a disease spreads across several countries and affects a large number of people," while a disease becomes endemic when it is a "constant presence and/or usual prevalence of a disease or infectious agent within a geographic area." 

4. Dr. O'Horo said it's too soon to say if the pandemic is transitioning into an endemic stage but believes it is likely heading that way.

"Determining where we cross into that threshold is a question that epidemiologists and others will have to answer in coming weeks, because determining what that background level is will require some real research and looking at these numbers," he said March 7.

5. When the pandemic makes the transition into an endemic phase, Dr. O'Horo said some form of periodic vaccination will still be necessary.

"It's something where we're likely to see new variants like we've seen all along and likely to need new vaccines for those variants," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see something very similar to what we see with needing a seasonal shot the way we do for the flu."

6. Some experts have warned against using the word "endemic" to signify the end of public health crises, noting that a disease in an endemic phase can still be wide-reaching and deadly.


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