How Will Americans Know When The Pandemic Is Over?

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Dylan Housman Deputy News Editor
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Americans can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel that is the COVID-19 pandemic, but how will they know when risk of getting COVID-19 has truly reached low levels?

There are a number of ways to quantify risk, and multiple medical experts gave the Daily Caller different answers regarding when Americans might feel at ease from the virus again. It will vary from person-to-person depending on health, vaccination status and location.

One popular tool for measuring risk has been The New York Times’ Risk Map. The map splits every county in America into one of five categories: “Extremely high risk” if a county has 45 or more cases per 100,000 people in a two-week period, “very high risk” with 11 or more cases per 100,000 people, “high risk” with three or more cases, “medium risk” with around one case and “low risk” for less than one case.

Not everyone agrees on where the dividing lines should be. (RELATED: Republican Doctors Launch Ad Urging Americans To Get Vaccinated)

“The NYT risk levels… appear to have been randomly chosen. I am unable to see any rational, or even rationalizable, explanation for how the NYT chose a series of of risk levels where only one level involves a round number, and where no two successive risk levels are related by the same ratio,” Rutgers University professor of chemistry and chemical biology Dr. Richard Ebright told the Caller.

Ebright said the risk of infection will decline as more Americans are vaccinated, but that more shots need to go into arms before people can relax: “The risk of infection upon exposure decreases as the fraction of the population that is vaccinated increases. However, currently, only about half of the US population has been partly vaccinated, and only about a quarter of the US population has been fully vaccinated….and therefore vaccination has not reached the level required for even a factor-of-2 reduction in risk of infection upon exposure.”

While COVID-19 case and death rates have seen a sharp drop since January highs, the per-capita new case rate nationwide is still more than 100, over double the NYT “extremely high risk” cutoff. However, if the U.S. is still so deep into “extremely high risk” territory, it’s unclear how the NYT would classify countries like India and Brazil whose new case rates per-capita dwarf that of the U.S.

Some experts say risk levels shouldn’t be thought of in collective terms at all, and instead should vary from person to person. “An individual becomes low risk when they’re fully vaccinated irrespective, in my view, of what’s going on in the community,” said Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security senior scholar Dr. Amesh Adalja.

“To me, it is difficult to find an exact threshold level of cases where to gauge public health mitigation measures. I have always advocated looking at hospital capacity and hospitalization rates as the best judge. This is because Covid is not going to go to zero and the goal of the vaccination campaign is to remove its ability to threaten hospitals, cause serious disease, cause hospitalizations, and cause death,” he added.

Hospitalizations have declined substantially in the U.S. since January but haven’t budged much in March or April. Vaccinations continue to proceed at a steady rate, though. More than 100 million Americans have now been fully vaccinated. (RELATED: Cuomo’s COVID-19 Czar Abruptly Resigns Following Change To State Ethics Law)

Ultimately, the issue will come down to risk tolerance, said Boston University epidemiologist Dr. Eleanor Murray: “Epidemiologists can tell the public how risky an activity is, how likely they are to be exposed to COVID in various locations, jobs, or activities, and how likely they are to suffer long term health consequences from COVID. But epidemiologists cannot tell the public what level of risk they should be comfortable accepting.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci previously said that new nationwide cases should be below 10,000 per day before restrictions are lifted. Currently, new cases are averaging around 50,000 per day.

Still, some experts like Ebright say even 10,000 is too high: “No serious person would suggest re-opening at anything even approaching this high level.”