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EDITORIAL: End to the pandemic will come

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It’s not referenced enough in the official talk surrounding the Omicron variant of COVID-19, but the ultra-contagious virus is likely helping us push toward an end to the pandemic.

As more and more people become positive with Omicron, with only a small percentage of people becoming as seriously ill as with previous virus variants, the nation moves toward some form of wholesale immunity – and an end to the pandemic.

Associated Press medical writers Lauran Neergaard and Carla K. Johnson are reporting on the question: How will the pandemic end?

A key conclusion is the pandemic will end but the coronavirus will remain. “The world will have to learn to coexist with a virus that's not going away.”

The newest variant is a warning about what will continue to happen "unless we really get serious about the endgame," Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health, told the AP reporters.

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"Certainly COVID will be with us forever," Ko added. "We're never going to be able to eradicate or eliminate COVID, so we have to identify our goals."

At some point, the World Health Organization will determine when enough countries have tamped down their COVID-19 cases sufficiently — or at least, hospitalizations and deaths — to declare the pandemic officially over. Exactly what that threshold will be isn't clear.

They're fuzzy distinctions, infectious disease expert Stephen Kissler of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said in the AP report. He defines the endemic period as reaching "some sort of acceptable steady state" to deal with COVID-19.

The omicron crisis shows we're not there yet but "I do think we will reach a point where SARS-CoV-2 is endemic much like flu is endemic," he said.

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Exactly how much continuing COVID-19 illness and death the world will put up with is largely a social question, not a scientific one.

"We're not going to get to a point where it's 2019 again," said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the AP reporters. "We've got to get people to think about risk tolerance."

Immunologist Ali Ellebedy at Washington University at St. Louis finds hope in the body's ability to adapt and fight off disease.

Ellebedy said baseline population immunity has improved so much that even as breakthrough infections continue, there will be a drop in severe illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths — regardless of the next variant.

"We are not the same population that we were in December of 2019," he told AP. "It's different ground now."

Think of a wildfire tearing through a forest after a drought, he said. That was 2020. Now, even with omicron, "it's not completely dry land," but wet enough "that made the fire harder to spread."

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He foresees a day when someone gets a coronavirus infection, stays home two to three days "and then you move on. That hopefully will be the endgame."

That day cannot get here fast enough.

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