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Local health official says it’s difficult to determine whether COVID-19 has become endemic

A scientist in a blue lab coat and gloves opens a box of medical equipment on a lab table.
A scientist at a private health lab running COVID-19 testing. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

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COVID-19 has been impacting people across the world for three summers. So, at what point will we call it an endemic — instead of a pandemic?  

VPM News Morning Edition Host Phil Liles spoke with Chtaura Jackson, an epidemiologist with the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts about where we are now with COVID-19.  

The following has been edited for length and clarity. 

VPM News: Can you explain the difference between pandemic and endemic? 

Chtaura Jackson : Pandemic refers to a disease outbreak that spreads across countries or a continent. And endemic means that the virus has a constant presence within a geographic region. But it's also important to note that endemic is not synonymous with harmless. So, you might have times where you might have high case counts, and you might have low case counts. But it's to the point where we can't actually eradicate the disease. So, it kind of stays with us. A lot of people refer to the flu, for example, is endemic. Each year we have different seasons, whether they're really good or really bad, but flu is with us to say and that's kind of what endemic means that it's a constant presence within a geographic region. 

Have we reached an endemic level with COVID-19? 

We are in the process of moving and preparing to move into an endemic state. But to answer that question, it can be kind of challenging to kind of figure out exactly where we are right now, in the US with COVID. Because there are a number of factors that are used to determine the timeline of when COVID-19 will move into an endemic state. And some of these factors include the strength and duration of immune protection from vaccinations and natural infection, patterns of contact with one another, they'll allow for Spread the transmissibility of the virus and the emergence of new variants. On the one hand, we've made a lot of advances and have a lot of resources. But on the other hand, we've seen that COVID-19 levels fluctuate, and new variants come on scene.  

So, overall, we encourage folks to really not get wrapped up in the broader definition of moving into an endemic. I know a lot of people want to move into endemic to kind of get back to their normal life. Instead. I think people should really focus on the CDC COVID-19 community level within their community to determine how they whether they need mitigation strategies or not. 

Could you describe how the pandemic has unfolded over the past couple of years? And, and how, how is the moment we're in now different than the previous years? 

What did we know in 2020, we knew that there was a novel Coronavirus, and that we were just starting to learn more about this virus. vaccines were not available in 2020. And testing was challenging to access during 2020. Moving into 2021, we had more data and a better overall understanding of how the virus functions. Vaccines came onto the scene in 2021 and became increasingly available. We had advancing in testing, though, there was still a lack of wide availability of at home tests, which pose some challenges. We also had advances in treatment, and then more variants. So more specifically the Delta variant that causes more severe illness and be more transmissible Omicron Baron appeared in 2021.  

Now, let's look at 2022. Where are we? After experiencing, the different variants that have come through CDC has started using the COVID-19 community level to measure COVID presence within a community. And they use this by looking at a combo of different rates. We're looking at case rate, the number of cases per 100,000, we're looking at the hospitalization rate. And we're also looking at the hospitalization capacity. In addition to that, now, nearly everyone can get vaccinated. So basically, everyone who's six months and older are, as long as they're eligible to get vaccinated able to get vaccinated. Testing is much more available. And that also includes at home tests. We have seen a lot of change. COVID continues to be a threat to our public health. But we also have more resources to be able to combat it. 

Now, how are health officials currently measuring the status of COVID-19 in our communities and how should we make decisions about our activities based on COVID-19 levels? 

That's a great question. So VDH is in alignment with CDC, CDC is using a metric called the COVID-19 community level that categorizes cities and counties into low, medium, or high. These metrics are based off of case rates, hospitalization rates, and also hospital capacity. There's also corresponding guidance for each of the levels as well. So currently, Richmond Henrico and other parts of Central Virginia are in a high community level right now. We recommend folks follow the CDC guidance of staying up to date on their vaccines, wearing masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. Following the isolation and quarantine guidance and increasing ventilation, if you're indoors, instead of having to be outdoors is always better, though. 

What advice do you give folks for living with COVID-19? And our communities in the medium and long term? 

We encourage folks to ride the wave of the pandemic, implementing more mitigation prevention measures during times of higher when we're in high community level, and then relaxing and enjoying more activities. During times we're in lower community level COVID Level, staying up to date on your COVID that see, that seems it's going to be important. You can also follow the CDC and written in Henrico, help districts on social media to kind of stay up to date on what's going on in your community. And those usually get updated every Thursday as well. And if you prefer to talk to a real person, you can also call our call center to chat if you have questions as well. 

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.