For months, the country has been waiting on a pandemic turning point — and it might be here, in the form of kids under age 5 becoming eligible for Covid vaccines.
Just don't expect it to make Covid disappear overnight, experts say.
Covid vaccines for small children are "absolutely a game changer for some families," Andrew Noymer, an associate professor of population health and disease prevention at the University of California, Irvine, tells CNBC Make It. "[But] this isn't the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle, unfortunately."
The good news is very good: A new 18 million people are now eligible to get vaccinated in the coming months, and even a fraction of them would significantly up the country's overall protection against the virus.
But low vaccination rates among the rest of the U.S. population — coupled with the emergence of new variants and constant regional Covid surges — make it difficult to determine when exactly the pandemic will fade into endemic status.
Here's why, and what experts say you can do to help the Covid pandemic finally end:
About two-thirds of people in the U.S. have now received a primary Covid vaccine series, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number sinks dramatically among young age groups: As of last week, less than 30% of eligible 5- to 11-year-olds were fully vaccinated against Covid-19 in the U.S.
Many parents may be understandably nervous about their child receiving a new vaccine. But opting out does those children more harm than good, says Dr. Jesica Herrick, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Illinois College of Medicine: Just under 90% of kids ages 5 to 11 who were hospitalized for Covid during the December omicron surge were unvaccinated, according to the CDC.
As soon as Herrick received access to the vaccine, her 7-month-old son got his vaccination last week. "People aren't as close to the data and numbers as we are," she says, "I got my child vaccinated the first appointment I could get, and I think that's true of most physicians."
Part of the problem, Herrick says, is that Covid fatigue is in full swing amid much of the U.S. population. For many people, omicron and its subvariants don't cause particularly severe illness, especially among the fully vaccinated — giving people less reason to be stringently cautious about virus prevention.
But there's no guarantee Covid's mutations end with omicron, says Ali Mokdad, chief strategy officer of population health at the University of Washington in Seattle. As long as the virus keeps circulating in some fashion, it can mutate again — and it's impossible to predict the severity of future variants.
"We can't just will away the pandemic. You can't just close your eyes and say, 'Nothing's going on, the pandemic is over,'" Herrick says.
In March, a major report published by a large group of doctors and public health experts laid out a roadmap for shifting Covid from pandemic to endemic in the U.S. It noted that to reach a "new normal," Covid death rates would need to roughly match those of influenza — fewer than 165 new deaths per day, on average.
As of Monday, the country's seven-day average of daily new Covid deaths is 371, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
The solution could include vaccines that target specific Covid variants. On Tuesday, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory committee is meeting to discuss the approval of such omicron-specific vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna as booster shots this coming fall, potentially as the first in an annual series of custom boosters.
Mokdad says the clinical trial data for those vaccines bodes well so far — but if you or your child aren't up-to-date on Covid shots, you shouldn't wait for a new vaccine to get approved. The sooner the country's vaccination percentages can rise, he says, the better.
"There is a new vaccine coming up that has been updated to include BA.4, BA.5 or omicron," he says, "But we shouldn't wait for a better vaccine to come out. We should vaccinate our kids today and provide them better protection as soon as possible."
That's especially important right now: New daily cases are on the rise again, according to Johns Hopkins University data, and that means a new variant of unknown severity could soon emerge.
Thomas Russo, an infectious diseases physician at the University at Buffalo, says those types of unknowns make Covid especially impossible to predict. What we do know, he says, is that vaccinations are currently the most important tool in our pandemic-ending toolbox.
"This virus is not going anywhere, and it's going to continue to circulate for a number of years, if not forever," Russo says, "Therefore, the amount of damage it causes is going to be indirectly proportional to the proportion of the population that's vaccinated."