What does endemic mean? Experts answer your questions about the future of covid.

A pedestrian in an Underground station tunnel in London. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
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As coronavirus experts around the world share their predictions that we will have to learn to live with covid-19, they are highlighting one of the less-familiar terms in the pandemic glossary: endemic.

“We have seen now that this is likely to become an endemic disease here in the United States and really around the world,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during an appearance on MSNBC in December. “We have many diseases that are endemic, influenza being one of them, that cause us minor challenges year after year that we can handle and tackle, and that may very well be what happens with covid.”

This doesn’t mean that the pandemic is close to being over — many parts of the world, including much of the U.S., are still experiencing elevated case counts, hospitalizations and deaths driven by the highly contagious omicron variant. And, experts said, even if and when covid-19 becomes endemic, we won’t likely be able to return to our carefree, pre-pandemic lives.

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Still, the word endemic is “a helpful concept, and it certainly provides some context as to where we are in this horribly unfortunate journey,” said Jacob Lemieux, an infectious-disease physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. The issue, however, is nuanced, he added.

Albert Ko, chair of the department of epidemiology and microbial diseases at the Yale School of Public Health, agreed. “This is not a situation where you have a flip of the switch, like, we’re pandemic one day and then we switch to endemic,” Ko said. “This is a gradual process and this is the process that we’re undergoing now.”

Here’s what you need to know about a disease becoming endemic — what it means, when it might happen and how it’s managed. Please keep in mind that as the pandemic evolves, information about the future of living with the coronavirus will likely change.

As the world enters a third year of the coronavirus pandemic, people wonder when and how it will end. History offers important lessons. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post, Photo: Getty Images/The Washington Post)
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