There is light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.
The possibility of normal life — or some version of it — returning soon is growing in New Jersey, as the rate of new cases plateaus and the vaccine rollout immunizes 2.4 million people a day in the U.S.
But will the coronavirus ever truly be gone?
While it’s difficult to say for certain, experts believe the virus is here to stay — in one form or another — for years to come.
Dr. David Cennimo, an infectious disease expert at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said the coronavirus will continue to mutate just like influenza. It could mean the need for annual vaccinations, again, just like the flu.
“I think that the goal or the hope is that it becomes a seasonal viral illness, not unlike influenza, or frankly the other … endemic coronaviruses that we’ve known for years,” Cennimo said.
He could foresee normal life with a “COVID season,” similar to our annual flu season. He said we may one day say: “Was this a bad COVID season? Or was this an OK COVID season?”
The new variants are already showing how the virus is adapting throughout the globe.
And it’s unlikely the coronavirus is going to cease mutating, said Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist at Montclair State University.
However, Silvera said it’s unlikely the virus will be as severe.
“The virus will continue to mutate to the point where it is transmissible but less fatal — less deadly,” Silvera said. “It’s not going to cause as severe an illness over time.”
Silvera agreed that the coronavirus could behave similarly to influenza.
“Where it’s endemic in some regions, and potentially eliminated in some areas, but not fully eradicated,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean the coronavirus couldn’t still pose severe problems in the future. In 2009, influenza — the H1N1 strain — led to a pandemic.
“There’s always the potential that you have — like we saw in 2009 with the flu — where there’s a newer strain that’s more transmissible … And then you have a more serious season,” she said.
Cennimo said the main concern is keeping people out of the hospital, which the Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson vaccines effectively do, according to trial data.
“You may have a couple days of congestion (and) cough” instead of people winding up in an ICU or on a ventilator, he said.
Continued vaccination could be key.
“If you think about it, that’s what — for years — we’ve talked about with influenza,” Cennimo said. “People will say, ‘Oh, well, the influenza vaccine is only 40% effective — it’s bad.’ It’s 40% effective against all infection. But if it’s keeping you out of the ICU, if it’s keeping you out of the hospital, period, and you’re taking a couple days off of work sick rather than spending a week in the hospital, it’s a huge benefit.”
He said it’s hard to say whether the nation could develop a vaccine that would eradicate the virus from the population. Other effective vaccines have failed in that mission.
“My personal pessimism says no,” Cennimo said. “And that’s mostly because we have a good enough vaccine in (the) measles vaccine that … we could eliminate measles with a concerted effort, and we haven’t been able to pull that off. We’re getting close to polio, but … if you think about how many decades that’s been going on…”
Dr. Reynold Panettieri, vice chancellor for translational medicine and science at Rutgers University, also believes it’s unlikely the coronavirus is going anywhere anytime soon.
“It’s hard to say, but if I have to look into my crystal ball, my impression is that it is going to be with us for probably a decade and maybe even longer,” Panettieri said. “We’ve seen that with the flu epidemic in 1918.”
But he posed a slightly different possibility.
While it is possible that the virus could manifest in the same way as the flu — with the need for annual vaccinations — there are some vaccinations, Panettieri said, that are given every five years.
The same could hold true with the coronavirus, he offered.
“In some cases, vaccines have to be given — not every year — but every five years,” Panettieri said, citing the Pneumovax 23 (pneumococcal) vaccine, which is administered to older adults every five years.
While only time will tell, people should expect to get used to the coronavirus — in some form — for the foreseeable future.
Spencer Kent may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.