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‘The Next Normal’ for COVID-19

March 07, 2022

A report from a panel of global health experts envisions the nation’s next steps to mitigate COVID-19, prepare for new variants, and “build towards a next normal.”

The report, “Getting to and Sustaining the Next Normal: A Roadmap for Living with COVID,” comes as the pandemic enters its third year, and cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to decline after the Omicron surge.

The new report notes that there’s significant room for optimism in the encouraging COVID-19 trends, but the virus continues to offer surprises and unique challenges.

“The shift to the next normal should not induce complacency, inaction, or premature triumphalism,” the report says. “To rapidly reach and sustain the next normal, the country must implement a comprehensive and coordinated roadmap to both address this pandemic and develop the capacity to confront future biosecurity threats.”

Here are five key insights:

  • COVID and other respiratory viruses:  The authors suggest a “reorientation” to focus on strategies that include COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses, such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). This includes improving pathways from testing to treatment for people with respiratory viruses
  • Testing capacity, surveillance:  Surveillance efforts have not yet reached the level needed to establish a “real-time” picture of COVID-19 in the U.S. Developing an infectious disease dashboard would add transparency related to “the introduction, modification, and lifting of public health measures.”
  • Scenarios:  The possibility of new variant and the durability of natural and vaccine immunity makes it hard to predict COVID-19’s future toll on the U.S., with projections ranging anywhere form as low as 15,000 annual deaths to as many as 300,000
  • Quotable:  “That COVID’s toll remains about 10 times higher than the flu’s modern worst is intolerable.”
  • What determines transition?:  Average daily deaths due to the virus and other major respiratory illnesses is a key metric to determine the next pandemic phase and when public health measures can end

The authors identify average daily deaths below 0.5 per 1 million Americans (165 U.S. deaths per day) as an important benchmark, but regions may be able to begin the transition toward ending public health measures earlier based on their COVID-19 metrics.

“The pandemic and its restrictive measures should end when COVID death rates decline to those of a bad influenza season,” the report said. “This is not to suggest that any deaths are acceptable. It is an interim period as approaches to addressing COVID change and the country transitions into the next normal.”

The U.S. seven-day average for COVID-19 deaths is 1,259, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The nation's seven-day average for cases has declined to about 42,200 per day, down from the winter highs that reached more than 800,000.

The roadmap was created by a team that includes epidemiologists, pharmacologists, virologists, immunologists, and policy experts and was shepherded by the vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania. It also includes insights on long COVID, air quality, health equity, school and childcare policies, and supporting the health care workforce.

The full roadmap, as well information about the contributors, is available online.