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Endemicity explained by Mayo Clinic doctor and why this COVID surge doesn't mean we're getting there

Dr. Greg Poland says we'll know when we're in an endemic when we still have low levels of infection in widespread geographic areas, but it's controlled.

MINNEAPOLIS — You might be hearing the word "endemic" being thrown around. There is chatter asking the question about whether this current surge of the omicron variant will turn this pandemic into an endemic.

Dr. Greg Poland studies infectious diseases and is the founder of Mayo Clinic's Vaccine Research group.

Let's start first with what "endemicity" means.

"That refers to an infectious disease in this case being endemic, meaning that it has a constant low level of activity, sometimes like influenza, with periodic spikes or epidemics," Dr. Poland said.

Dr. Poland said if you're hearing some say this surge will end the pandemic, that's wrong.

"I think when people say that they don't know what they're talking about," Dr. Poland said. "There is no evidence we have, no marker we have, no principles we have that allow us to determine that the virus and our behaviors to that virus are what will determine that, not our desire that it become endemic."

When will we know if it's an endemic then?

"We will know when this pandemic becomes endemic when we see a low level of COVID infection, we see it in widespread geographic areas, but it's controlled and as I say, low level," said Dr. Poland.

That means COVID-19 is likely here to stay, according to Dr. Poland. He said the way the world dealt with this from the beginning has now made it impossible to eradicate. He said we can see that by looking at history.

"If you got your flu shot this fall, and I hope everybody did, one of the components of that flu shot was a residual variant from a flu virus that first showed up and caused the pandemic of 1918 and 102 years later, 104 years later, we are still immunizing against that virus," Dr. Poland said. "It went from pandemic to endemic."

In other words, your great, great, great grandkids will be immunized for it, Dr. Poland said. He adds that it is what is not happening that is a cause for concern, saying about 1 in 5 Americans are not vaccinated.

"People are not adhering to getting vaccinated, to getting boosted, which would really increase levels of population immunity, which tends to bring us to endemicity faster," Dr. Poland said. "They're ignoring distancing guidelines, ignoring masking guidelines under the guise of choice."  

"Let me be very clear here: On our current course and the way the population is dealing with this, we will continue to see the evolution of new variants. Some of those variants could very well evade most - if not all - of our immunity and if that happens we start all over again," he said.

Dr. Poland said they're currently keeping an eye on two variants, with one that looks virologically like omicron with delta capabilities. He's asking people to do their part, including getting information from credible scientific sources.

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