When -- and how -- the pandemic could become endemic

The vaccines are expected to help put the world on track to a sense of normal again and push COVID-19 into the background, but plenty of people want to know exactly when the pandemic will end.

Some epidemiologists said the COVID-19 pandemic could turn into an endemic early next year while others said it will likely be longer because the rest of the world needs vaccines. 

"So endemic is just when you have a disease that is at a typical level, a level that is expected within a population," explained Dr. Cindy Prins, a University of Florida associate professor of epidemiology.

Currently, COVID-19 is still infecting mass group of people, so it is nowhere near fading out to the background. But pandemics have evolved into endemics in the past.

"We've had flu pandemics, right? We've had the swine flu that I think a lot of people remember from 2009. And we still encounter that variant of flu sometimes, and it's part of the vaccine now anyway," said Prins. "So people still get infected, but we don't see that kind of high level of cases that we saw initially in 2009."

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Infectious disease scientists are studying virus models for COVID-19. USF Health’s Dr. Edwin Michael is a virus modeler and shared when COVID could be behind us.

"It'll begin to decline and it'll fade away in like early next year. Perhaps, February next year, we will see the back of this," said Michael. "The worst-case scenario, it'll become an endemic like flu. You know, we'll just have to deal with it, but it'll be in the background. Most people are protected, but that means we have to get reboosted, take the vaccines."

Michael said an endemic by February is only possible if more people get the vaccine to counteract the spread of the delta variant, practice public health guidelines and a nastier virus mutation doesn’t take over.

"Then you get flare-ups, you know, but you don't get a global pandemic because the rest of us are immune to those things," said Michael.

Since new variants can prolong the pandemic, Prins said she believes it may take longer February to bring COVID-19 to an endemic.

"Part of the issue right now is that even in the US, we still have a fairly large unvaccinated population. But then if you go outside the US and in particular to some of the more underdeveloped nations, they haven't had access to vaccines. They have large portions of their population that are not vaccinated, and so this is a global effort," said Prins.

Prins and Michael said they believe COVID-19 will stick around but be more like the flu or measles and mumps where enough people get the shot to build immunity.