In order to mitigate the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19, UC Santa Barbara announced on Dec. 21 that the first two weeks of the winter quarter will be conducted via remote instruction. As of Dec. 30, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department reported 538 new cases in Santa Barbara County — the most number of cases reported by the department since Jan. 16, 2021.
Currently, UCSB plans for a staggered return of students back to campus and mandatory testing, all to ensure a resumption of in-person instruction on Jan. 18. However, the recent and significant increase of COVID-19 case numbers and the systemwide UC announcement of two weeks of remote instruction are reminiscent of a similar series of events that ensued in March of 2020. The two weeks allocated at the start of the pandemic extended to almost two years of remote learning for many students. Thus, UCSB’s plan for return, which is subject to reassessment, is met with speculation by some, as many rightfully question whether history will repeat itself.
Lockdown and remote learning continued for as long as it did in 2020 and 2021 because the stay-at-home order was the only option to reduce disease transmission. According to the American Journal of Managed Care, in 2020, news outlets focused on how COVID-19 spread across the globe, while 2021 focused on ending the pandemic through vaccine distribution. History is not repeating itself, and we are not back to square one, also known as March of 2020.
But now, even with nearly 99.77% of students and 95.61% of employees being vaccinated and better knowledge of how to mitigate COVID-19 transmission, our response to significant variant spread remains the same — announce a mandate for distance learning. Can such disruptions to the academic continuum be sustainable? On a larger scale, will there be an end to the pandemic, or is COVID-19 here to stay?
According to a survey conducted by Nature, out of over 100 infectious-disease researchers, immunologists, and virologists, nearly 90% of respondents stated that coronavirus will continue to circulate in certain areas of the world, meaning it will become endemic. A virus is considered endemic when it is transmitted at a predictable or usually prevalent rate, therefore considered characteristic of a specific region, such as influenza, or malaria in certain regions of the world.
Back in October 2021, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb predicted that delta would catalyze the final COVID-19 spike in the U.S. before cases began to plateau. But now, with COVID-19 cases of the omicron variant on significant rise and mask mandates reinstated, predictions of when, or whether, the pandemic will end are blurry.
One of the first conditions for endemicity is that the number of cases of an infectious disease must stabilize over time. The reproductive number is an indication of how contagious and transmissible an infectious disease is. For a virus to be considered endemic, that number must be stable at one, meaning that for every person that is infected, on average, they infect only one other person.
The omicron variant is considered the most infectious variant to date, as its many mutations on the spike protein have been found to help it dodge developed immunity, both among those vaccinated and formerly infected, creating a heightened risk of contracting and then spreading the virus to others.
In a Denmark study, researchers found that omicron is 2.7-3.7 times more infectious than the delta variant among those who have been vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19. Indeed, according to an NPR article, the rate at which omicron is spreading is comparable to the rate at which the original COVID-19 strain spread at the beginning of the pandemic. The reproductive number of COVID-19 as of March 17, 2020, for perspective, was 4.02, according to a study published by the Population Health Research Institute.
But while the omicron variant may be more transmissible, data indicates that vaccination remains to reduce the risk of hospitalization and death. To assess the risk of hospitalization, a report by the UK Health Agency collected data on 528,176 omicron cases and 573,012 delta cases between Nov. 22 and Dec. 26 of 2021. Those who had received two doses of a vaccine had a 65% lower risk of being admitted to a hospital for omicron than those who had not received any form of vaccination, with an 81% lesser risk of hospitalization for those who had received three vaccine doses. However, the agency conceded that the study doesn’t address how the variant will impact healthcare capacity, which is another important and nuanced consideration for endemicity, as the fragility of the healthcare system varies from region to region.
The vaccine is currently the best protection against hospitalization and death by COVID-19, and yet vaccine hesitancy is still prevalent among several demographics in the U.S., representing millions of opportunities for the virus to continue to spread. The course of this pandemic is not cyclical, and we are in a better position to mitigate this virus than we were last year and the year before — but it isn’t over yet. Research by the University of Texas at Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium suggests that omicron cases could peak mid-to-late January, with activities and gatherings becoming safer in February.
Eventually, COVID-19 can be labeled as endemic, but until we increase vaccination rates to slow transmission, limit hospitalization and death to ease strain on the healthcare system, we aren’t quite there. And until then, measures like remote learning and mask mandates remain the most effective ways of reducing surges of COVID-19 infections.