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COVID-19: What Is Pandemic Versus Endemic?

Mark Jansen, M.D., vice president and chief medical officer at Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, discusses what happens next in the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are so familiar with the word “pandemic” having heard it multiple times daily over the last 3 years. Perhaps your ear recently has caught a similar but different word… “endemic”. And what about “epidemic”?

Dr. Mark Jansen
Dr. Mark Jansen, Chief Medical Officer

Epidemic – A disease that affects a large population or country. For example, flu becomes epidemic in the United States during some years.

Pandemic – An epidemic that has spread over multiple countries occurring at the same time. COVID-19 is a pandemic

Endemic – An illness with a constant background presence that causes periodic illness. Malaria is endemic in parts of Africa.

As vaccines become more plentiful and more individuals recover from COVID-19 infections, the collective level of immunity will help to end the current pandemic.

It would be great if COVID-19 went away, never to be seen or heard of again.  Unfortunately, COVID-19 is likely to become endemic, always hanging around just waiting to get someone sick. It remains to be seen if COVID-19 will follow the “rules” of other viral respiratory illness. Will COVID-19 be more common in the winter when we are driven indoors by cold weather? It may flare back up periodically rising to the level of an epidemic in certain locations but hopefully will not be everywhere at once, hence losing the designation of “pandemic”.

Will a few folks traveling from a country having an epidemic, start another elsewhere? Recall how easily Omicron spread from South Africa to overtake the world. Not all countries will get to the same place at the same time. Rich countries will recover more quickly than poor ones simply due to the discrepancy in vaccine availability and advanced medical care.

Still, my hope is sooner than later, COVID-19 will become “endemic”.

Next time, more on vaccines and treatments in the pipeline.



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