As of Friday, it's officially been two years since the World Health Organization first declared Covid-19 a pandemic. Numerous U.S. states are relaxing Covid mandates, amid a nationwide drop in daily new cases.
But a major new report warns: Don't let your guard down, because there's a lot more work to do before the pandemic officially ends.
The report, written by an independent group of 53 doctors and public health policy experts — including former government health officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations — is a 136-page roadmap for getting to the "next normal," and safely living with Covid for the foreseeable future. It provides recommendations to local, state and federal governments on how to deal with the virus, which it describes as "here to stay."
While the report says that "omicron won't be the last variant," it says that with the right public health policies, people can go back to something close to their "pre-pandemic routines and lives." To achieve this, the report offers recommendations to help firmly shift Covid into its endemic phase, and bring the U.S. into post-pandemic life.
Here are its biggest takeaways:
To successfully transition into a new normal, the report says that Covid-19 death rates will need to decline to a similar level as influenza, a comparable endemic disease that kills more than 50,000 Americans in a year. That means fewer than 165 new deaths per day, on average.
As of Thursday, the seven-day average of daily new U.S. deaths is 1,259, according to Johns Hopkins University data. That's roughly seven times higher than the report's recommended target, meaning there's still significant work ahead before the country is in the clear.
The report suggests that getting more people vaccinated would substantially help. Ideally, it says, at least 85% of the U.S. population should get at least two doses of a Covid vaccine. Currently, the U.S. is approximately 65% fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To live with Covid long-term, the report says, the country needs more therapeutic drugs — likely "a cocktail of two or three drugs" — that can prevent serious illness and hospitalization after you become infected.
The report's authors recommend a new Operation Warp Speed — originally a partnership between the U.S. federal government and private companies to fast-track Covid vaccine production in 2020 and 2021 — to accelerate the progress of some antiviral Covid drugs already in development.
Two such drugs, developed by Pfizer and Merck, have already been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The report says two isn't enough, calling for a wider array of available therapeutic treatment options.
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden announced a new, upcoming "Test to Treat" program in his State of the Union address. Once live, the program intends to offer free antiviral pills — immediately — to people who test positive for Covid at major pharmacies, federally qualified health centers and long-term care facilities.
For now, the program is operational in only a few hundred locations. It's expected to ramp up to tens of thousands of locations in the next few weeks. A federal "Test to Treat" website where you can find participating facilities is expected to launch in mid-March. More information on the program can be found here.
Citing poor communication from health officials during the pandemic, the report calls for a centralized "information and communication center" that would oversee the sharing of data about infectious diseases. The new entity would also communicate when and where you should wear masks, if Covid-19 cases surge.
Under recently revised CDC guidelines, masks are no longer actively recommended if you live in an area where Covid cases are less than 200 per 100,000 residents, there are fewer than 10 Covid-related hospital admissions per 100,000 people over the previous week and Covid patients are taking up less than 10% of available hospital beds, based on a seven-day average.
You can learn whether masks are currently recommended in your county at the CDC's website.
The report says that more research and funding from Congress and state legislators should be provided to mitigate Covid-related health disparities disproportionately impacting people of color, rural communities, tribal lands, and other underserved groups and locations. These groups tend to have less access to medical care and higher mortality rates, compared to the rest of the U.S. population.
The report's authors recommend a few ways to reach those underserved areas, like funding the local health efforts of community leaders and faith-based organizations. Those communities are more inclined to distrust government agencies and the healthcare system in general, the report notes.
Some of the lengthy report's other notable recommendations include:
- Making Covid test kits more available, either for free or under $3 per kit.
- Creating and publicly tracking a new metric that measures local health care workforce shortages across the country.
- Enhanced air filtration in public buildings, potentially as a replacement for the indoor use of protective equipment like respirators and face masks.
- Using high-quality N95 masks instead of cloth masks, especially when Covid cases in your community jump.