Is this the 'new normal' stage of the pandemic? Experts think so

In terms of COVID-19 risk, this spring feels different than the last two, experts told The New York Times in an April 25 report

"We've reached a stage of stability where people are making choices to return their lives to something closer to normal," Robert Wachter, MD, chair of the department of medicine at UC San Francisco, told the news outlet. "And I think that makes sense. Cases are relatively low; deaths are relatively low." 

Deaths are lower than they have been since March 2020 (though more than 150 are still dying every day). Hospitalizations and cases are also trending down, though cases are difficult to track given the widespread use of at-home rapid tests. For the past two years, this has been the case in the spring months: COVID-19 metrics drop before jumping in the mid- to late summer. 

Even if that's the case this year, it feels less daunting — mostly because nearly everyone in the U.S. has some level of immunity from vaccination, infections or both. The World Health Organization recently deemed omicron relative XBB.1.16 the latest "variant of interest." The strain is estimated to account for about 10 percent of U.S. cases and has not shown any indications of increased disease severity. 

Whether the next influx of infections is caused by XBB.1.16 or another strain, the stage the U.S. is now in — characterized by rolling back precautions and a focus on those most at-risk of severe illness — is unlikely to change much going forward. That is, unless an entirely new "game-changing" variant emerges. 

"It could get a little worse, in which case I think people and societies change if they're being rational. I think it's unlikely to get much better," Dr. Wachter told the Times

In this new normal, experts are maintaining practices including wearing a mask in crowded settings where they are spending a duration of time, such as on an airplane. Perhaps most important is to continue to be mindful of those with weak immune systems or preexisting conditions that put them at higher risk of severe illness or death. That could look like masking when around someone at high risk or testing before indoor gatherings. 

"I think we have to do what we can to mitigate risk, not just for ourselves, but also we live in a community," Krutika Kuppalli, MD, an infectious disease physician who always self-tests before events, told the Times.


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