How the Covid pandemic ends: Scientists look to the past to see the future

Almost two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, an end might finally be in sight.

Experts say that Covid will likely lose its "pandemic" status sometime in 2022, due largely to rising global vaccination rates and developments of antiviral Covid pills that could become more widespread next year.

Instead, the virus will likely become "endemic," eventually fading in severity and folding into the backdrop of regular, everyday life. Various strains of influenza have followed a similar pattern over the past century or more, from the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 to the swine flu pandemic in 2009.

Covid will probably remain dangerous once the pandemic ends much like the flu, which killed as many as 62,000 people in the U.S. between October 2019 and April 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But barring any major developments, "normal" post-pandemic life could arrive soon. Here's what you can expect from the next year and beyond.

Covid could become much more seasonal

Once endemic, Covid won't dictate your daily decision-making as much, as billionaire health philanthropist Bill Gates described in his end-of-year blog post last week: "It won't be primary when deciding whether to work from the office or let your kids go to their soccer game or watch a movie in a theater."

Endemic illnesses are always circulating throughout parts of the world, but tend to cause milder illness because more people have immunity from past infection or vaccination. You might get a cough and sniffles, but if you're up-to-date on your vaccinations, you'll be protected enough to prevent severe illness or hospitalization.

Like other respiratory viruses, there will be times of year when Covid infections peak most likely the colder fall and winter months, meaning Covid and flu seasons could regularly coincide going forward.

When sick, you'll be advised to keep wearing masks and staying home

If the virus does become more seasonal, wearing a mask on public transit and indoors during Covid season could become the norm — potentially even in offices, says Shaun Truelove, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and member of The Covid Scenario Modeling Hub, a team of researchers who make Covid projections.

Other familiar prevention strategies, like regularly washing your hands and maintaining distancing practices in high-risk settings, could also stick around.

Covid tests could get more affordable and accessible

If you've ever waited in a long line to get a Covid test, or stressed about getting your results back in time for an event, you know firsthand how the country has been "hamstrung by the delays and challenges with getting PCR tests," Truelove says.

In early December, President Joe Biden announced a plan to require private insurance companies to cover the cost of rapid at-home Covid-19 tests. If you're one of the 150 million people in the U.S. with private health insurance, you could potentially one day get reimbursed for a Covid test that you buy at the drug store.

The plan is imperfect, experts say, because not everyone can afford to wait for reimbursement — and the responsibility would fall on consumers to figure out how to file a claim. At-home Covid tests approved by the Food and Drug Administration are widely available now, but the tests can cost upwards of $20 a pop.

Elsewhere around the world, you can get a rapid Covid test for free, a model that some experts say could be replicated in the U.S.

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