In the middle of January, the deadliest month of the pandemic, one day after inauguration, the Biden administration put out a comprehensive national strategy for “beating COVID-19.” The 200-page document includes many useful goals, such as “Restore trust with the American people” and “Mount a safe, effective, and comprehensive vaccination campaign.” But nowhere does it give a quantitative threshold for when it will be time to say, “Okay, done—we’ve beaten the pandemic.”
A month later, it’s time to get specific. The facts are undeniable: The seven-day average of new cases in the United States has fallen by 74 percent since their January peak, hospitalizations have gone down by 58 percent, and deaths have dropped by 42 percent. Meanwhile, more than 60 million doses of vaccine have gone into American arms. At some point—maybe even some point relatively soon—the remaining emergency measures that were introduced in March 2020 will come to an end. But when, exactly, should that happen?
The problem is that the “end of the pandemic” means different things in different contexts. The World Health Organization first declared a “public health emergency of international concern” on January 30, 2020, holding off on labeling it a “pandemic” until March 11. The imposition (and rescinding) of these labels is a judgment made by WHO leadership, and one that can reflect murky, tactical considerations. Regardless of what the WHO decides (and when), national governments—and individual states within the U.S.—have to make their own determinations about when and how to reopen their schools and loosen their restrictions on businesses. I reached out to prominent public-health experts to find out which epidemiological criteria ought to be met before these kinds of steps are taken.