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Is the COVID pandemic over? South Carolina experts weigh in

While the COVID pandemic is largely off the front pages, it's not wise to assume it can't come back.
While the COVID pandemic is largely off the front pages, it's not wise to assume it can't come back.

Professionals move with caution regarding declaring the pandemic over.

By now, most people have gotten the COVID vaccine, or multiple vaccines. You see fewer people wearing masks than a few months ago. Even President Biden declared recently the pandemic was over. But is it really over? According to Prisma Health Infectious Disease physician Dr. Helmut Albrecht, it’s a little of both.

“Objectively, it’s not over,” he said. “We are seeing many, many cases in many countries around the world, so by definition, the pandemic is not over. But what he (the President) meant is that the emergency situation and the emergency declaration is over. I think there’s some validity to that.”

University of South Carolina economist Joey Von Nessen hasn’t detected an end to the pandemic in his area. “Certainly not from an economic perspective. We’re still dealing with the effects on the economy, and that’s going to take some significant time to play out, and that will extend well into next year.”

Albrecht said since people have the vaccine, and deaths and hospitalizations are down locally, it’s understandable that they would believe the pandemic is over.

“The sense of a real widespread disaster is over in the U.S. mind. We have moved on from it. It’s not on the first page of the newspaper anymore. It’s not on the forefront of people’s mind anymore. So in that way, our feeling of a pandemic is over.

“The pandemic itself, isn’t. The virus doesn’t care whether we declare it over or not. It’ll still be around. But overall the sense of an urgency clearly has gone away in the U.S. But I understand that a layman can think that we’re in significantly less of an emergency situation than we were a year or two years ago.”

According to USC sociology Professor Joe Quinn, COVID has affected numerous aspects of society. He named one in particular that has lingered.

“The pandemic really had an impact on people’s loneliness. On their internal social experiences,” said Quinn. “A few studies have shown that, particularly in older populations, the shrinkage of people’s networks, of their ability to connect with people that were their loved ones before the pandemic, because of the need to socially isolate or effectively protect more vulnerable people, that kind of disappeared. Americans, particularly older Americans, felt way more isolated, which makes plenty of sense.”

Von Nessen pointed out several economic results that COVID produced or aggravated, including the labor shortage. “One thing that’s important to understand is much of the labor shortage is permanent,” he said. “Because it reflects baby boomers who have been retiring at an accelerated rate over the last several years. And looking forward, the number of millennials and Gen Z, is just not as large as the baby boomers. And so as a result, as we move forward, there are not enough people to come in to take all the jobs that the baby boomers are leaving behind. And so that labor shortage is going to be with us for the foreseeable future.”

Albrecht compared the medical advice given to people for coping with COVID to an airplane flight. “If the pilot says ‘we’re flying into a turbulence, we’re putting our seatbelts back on,’ we all put our seat belts back on. We may fly into more turbulent times with COVID again.

“Just because it’s now relatively under control, I do not know what the next variant is. I know there will be a next variant. And I hope it will be even less bad for most people. But we may tell you to mask up again. So you have to stay up on it, you shouldn’t ignore it.”

Asked what would signal economists that the pandemic had passed, Von Nessen looked to next year. “One thing we’ d like to see is most of these supply chain constraints resolved that are still in flux, and are currently creating shortages periodically in different markets.

“On the demand side, we would like to see demand get pulled back to the extent that we can limit the high levels of inflation that we’re seeing right now. I don’t think we’re gonna get there in 2023, but a steady movement downward towards two percent would be a successful outcome over the next year,” stated the economist.

“That would get us closer to a period where we could consider from an economic perspective the pandemic is over.”

Quinn said the pandemic has caused him to think more about the welfare of the people in his life, and to continue his precautions. Albrecht advised people to continue to be vigilant, because individuals still must assess their own risks when traveling or gathering in large groups. All three experts felt it will be some time yet before all aspects of life can return to a semblance of a “new normal.”


Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.