Experts map out 'new normal' as US enters third pandemic year

COVID-19 rapid antigen self-test
COVID-19 rapid antigen self-test

Martin Hambleton / iStock

As America enters the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic and approaches the 2-year anniversary of business and school shutdowns put in place when little was known about the novel coronavirus, a group of public health experts have published a new roadmap laying out how the country can enter the "new normal" stage of the pandemic and manage the virus without eliminating it.

The roadmap recommends against future school closings, suggests the United States will need to manufacture 1 billion at-home COVID-19 tests per month, and says the nation can lift pandemic restrictions when it is tallying 165 or fewer deaths per day from the virus.

The authors begin the roadmap by acknowledging where America stands: fatigued with the pandemic, some having stopped all COVID-19 protocols, while others still extremely cautious. In the middle are millions who are confused about how to comport themselves now that vaccines and therapeutics make COVID-19 a more manageable disease.

The roadmap was co-authored by 24 US experts, including 2 from the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, publisher of CIDRAP News.

Measures may end when deaths fall dramatically

"The pandemic and its restrictive measures should end when Covid death rates decline to those of a bad influenza season," the authors write. That translates to roughly 60,000 deaths per year, or 165 per day.

Currently, the 7-day average of new daily COVID-19 cases is 44,800, with 1,539 daily deaths, according to the Washington Post tracker. In the past week cases fell by 31%, hospitalizations fell 23%, and deaths fell 19%.

In the best-case scenario, the authors write, widespread use of vaccines and previous infection will limit the ability of the virus to cause extensive deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's COVID Data Tracker shows 65.1% of Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, 76.5% have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 44% of fully vaccinated Americans have received a booster.

Testing, air quality key parts of roadmap

White House officials say more money is urgently needed from Congress to bolster COVID-19 testing supplies and guarantee that uninsured Americans keep getting free treatment for the virus, the Associated Press reports. 

Expanding test-to-treat options and making widely available at-home COVID-19 tests is 1 of the main 12 recommendation made by the authors of the roadmap. The roadmap suggests that the US develop the capacity to manufacture 1 billion a -home COVID-19 tests per month.

Roadmap coauthor Michael Mina, MD, PhD, the chief science officer of eMed, a company that sells COVID-19 tests, told CIDRAP News that tests are no longer needed to simply stop the transmission chain of the virus. Instead, they will be explicitly linked to gaining access to COVID-19 treatments.

"Linking tests to treatment has already been made a priority of the administration. Making the whole test-to-treat process work at home means that people will get tested and thus treated in time for the oral antiviral treatments to be maximally beneficial," he said.

"Effective, accessible treatment changes the balance of this pandemic. And, moving forward, it will be one of the major advances and advantages associated with access to rapid testing at home."

The roadmap also emphasizes a need for schools and businesses to improve their air quality. Moreover, it emphases that school shutdowns should be avoided at almost all costs, and that most schools should and can go maskless in the near future.

Starting today, masks for public school students in New York City are optional, the New York Times reports. It is one of the biggest school districts in the country.

In addition to testing, air quality, and school guidelines, the roadmap also covers the need to investigate and invest in treatments for "long COVID," to invest in public health infrastructure, and to ensure that American healthcare workers are well-equipped with personal protective equipment in the future.

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