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Is it time to live with COVID-19? Some scientists warn of ‘endemic delusion’

As surges of COVID-19 cases driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant recede, parts of the United States, Canada, and Europe are moving swiftly to lift constraints on a pandemic-fatigued public. Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have abolished nearly all ­COVID-19–related restrictions in recent weeks, and the United Kingdom announced it would do the same this month, dropping even the legal requirement that people quarantine after testing positive for SARS-CoV-2. In the United States, despite persistently high numbers of COVID-19–related deaths and busy hospitals, 10 governors, many known for being cautious in their pandemic response, last week announced immediate or impending ends to their states’ indoor or school mask mandates.

Some of those moves came with assertions that it’s time to “live with the disease” and treat the coronavirus as endemic—a stable, enduring figure in the panoply of human pathogens, alongside cold viruses and influenza. That suggestion troubles many scientists, who warn it is eroding governments’ commitment to tracking and responding to the pandemic—which could leave countries flying blind and unprepared for any new variant.

“Endemic delusion is probably what captures it the best,” says Kristian Andersen, an infectious disease researcher at Scripps Research who has been especially critical of recent moves by his home country of Denmark, which include an announcement that as of this month COVID-19 would no longer be categorised as a “socially critical disease” even though related death and hospitalisation rates were still climbing there.

In the United States, governors cited various metrics to justify recent decisions to lift or let expire indoor mask mandates. California Governor Gavin Newsom noted stable hospitalisation rates and a 65% reduction in cases since Omicron’s peak in announcing the state’s mandate would end this week. But leaders also face political and economic pressures. States’ moves may be driven largely by the public’s impatience with restrictions, says epidemiologist Dustin Duncan of Columbia University.

“Even people who recognize the importance of masking, social distancing, all that stuff, may be more amenable to take more risk,” he says. “At the same time, to me, going maskless just seems egregious.” 

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Source: Science, 15 February 2022


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