After more than a year of obsessively tracking COVID-19 case numbers, epidemiologists are starting to shift focus to other measures as the next stage of the COVID-19 pandemic emerges.
With rich countries vaccinating growing proportions of their vulnerable populations, the link between infection numbers and deaths appears to be diminishing. Now, the focus is on learning to live with the virus — and on the data that matter most to avoid fresh lockdowns.
“It’s possible we’ll get to a stage of only monitoring hospitalizations,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center, which has built one of the most comprehensive platforms to track the virus and its impact.
Before vaccination campaigns took off in the UK, the US and Europe, a spike in cases almost invariably translated into a surge in hospitalizations and deaths over the course of several weeks. The strain on health systems left leaders little choice but to place curbs on public life, disrupting economies, and forced people with other medical conditions to delay important procedures.
Now, scientists and government officials are keen to see whether the widening scope of vaccinations will finally break that cycle. Events in the UK are providing the most compelling test case to date.
About 46 percent of the British population is fully vaccinated, according to Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker, helping reduce daily deaths to the lowest level since last summer.
Yet cases of the Delta variant, a more transmissible strain first identified in India, almost doubled in the past week, Public Health England said on Friday.
Hospitalizations also ticked higher, although most of the patients have not been fully vaccinated.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday last week postponed the end of lockdown measures by four weeks to allow more adults to receive a second vaccine dose, which data show significantly increases protection against the new strain.
However, even if the virus spreads further among children and non-vaccinated young adults, the true test of the immunization campaign will be whether hospitalizations and deaths stay low.
If they do, COVID-19 would begin to look less like an unmanageable pandemic, and more like a seasonal disease such as influenza. For policy-makers, that is the goal.
“We are aiming to live with this virus like we do with flu,” UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock told Parliament last week.
Scientists have said comparing the prevalence of COVID-19 to the flu, which kills about 650,000 people globally each year, would become an important yardstick come next fall and winter.
COVID-19 has killed more than 3.8 million people since the start of last year, but vaccinated countries should eventually be able to treat its periodic resurgences in the same way as they do the flu — and make policy decisions accordingly.
“Comparing to seasonal influenza impact is an appropriate one when talking about things like closing schools,” Nuzzo said. “What do we do with influenza? Would we do this in a normal flu season?”
In a sign of pandemic optimism — or fatigue — about two dozen US states have reduced how often they release COVID-19 data. Florida now reports just once per week.
However, in much of the world, health officials are not taking their eyes off case numbers yet. Taiwan and China reduced new infections almost to zero, but a lack of vaccines means that even small outbreaks must be treated as big threats.
In Taiwan, after a year of relative calm and daily cases in single digits, daily infections rose as high as 723 during last month. The government shut entertainment venues and restricted indoor gatherings to five people to curb the spread.
“When we look at Taiwan, which is the best of the best, it underscores the vulnerability of these countries,” Nuzzo said. “They are not going to be able to relax until they’re able to vaccinate more widely.”
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