Is COVID-19 still a 'pandemic?'

(NEXSTAR) – On March 11, 2020, the director-general of the World Health Organization told the world that COVID-19 “can be characterized as a pandemic.”

At the time, fewer than 4,500 people were thought to have died from the virus, but it was spreading quickly, appearing in new cities and countries every day.

Fast forward to 2024, and the virus has taken an estimated 7 million lives. It’s still mutating and sparking new variants, sickening thousands of people, and ultimately killing hundreds every day. But we also have far more tools than we did in 2020. We have several effective vaccines and anti-viral treatments to help combat the disease.

With all that in mind, is COVID-19 still considered a pandemic-level threat?

A WHO spokesperson told Nexstar “the word ‘pandemic’ is not binary, it’s not on or off.” To make things even more complicated, there’s not one universal agreed-upon definition of a pandemic.

Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health says a pandemic begins when a disease is spreading exponentially and across international borders. “This wide geographical reach is what makes pandemics lead to large-scale social disruption, economic loss, and general hardship.”

On the other hand, a disease is endemic when it’s “consistently present but limited to a particular region.”

With COVID-19, it’s been “consistently present” for years, but isn’t limited to any particular area or population. It still has “wide geographical reach,” but case counts aren’t exploding out of control.

The WHO won’t make a ruling on when the pandemic is “over,” a spokesperson told Nexstar. However, they did declare an end to the Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) in May 2023. Unlike the term “pandemic,” a public health emergency is clearly defined under international health regulations.

While the WHO stopped short of determining whether or not COVID-19 still constitutes a pandemic, the agency made it clear the virus “remains a global health threat.”

“There are hundreds of thousands people with COVID-19 in hospital now and there are many suffering from Long COVID,” the WHO said. “What we can say for COVID-19, is that the crisis is over, but the threat is not and what we need now, is countries to pursue their response and to take action needed to save lives.”

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