Experts Warn Against Treating COVID As Inevitable

Man looking down at face mask debating whether he should wear it.

Brianna Gilmartin / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • While vaccines have changed the course of the pandemic, we are still not in a place where all health measures should be abandoned, experts say.
  • Until everyone is vaccinated or has immunity, the virus will continue to mutate and poses risks—especially to people who are immunocompromised.
  • It’s smart to still wear masks in large public settings, get vaccinated, and make decisions based on your individual risks.

As we round out two years of the COVID-19 crisis, pandemic fatigue is settling in. More people are starting to think that getting the virus is unavoidable. But experts say this mindset can be harmful.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that more than three-quarters of people think COVID-19 infection is inevitable for most people. The poll shows that the public, overall, is more worried about the impact Omicron is having on the U.S. economy and local hospitals than their personal lives. This mentality paired with lifted restrictions across the world is leading to a laissez-faire attitude toward the virus.

While the advancements we’ve made in the last year do change the state of the pandemic, experts emphasize that it’s too soon to throw caution to the wind. Forgoing masks and abandoning all health measures may be a dangerous situation—especially for those who are immunocompromised.

Kelly Gebo, MD, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, explained that we are still learning about Omicron and the future of the virus. She points to current unknowns like how long we’ll have immunity after Omicron infection and whether or not we will need additional boosters.

Even for those who have been vaccinated, Omicron infection may not be “mild” in the way people have come to understand it. This is especially true for people with weakened immune systems or underlying conditions.

“I am strongly in favor of us continuing to do the things to protect ourselves like getting vaccinated, wearing masks in places that are high-risk, and trying to do whatever we can to both protect ourselves and those who can’t protect themselves,” Gebo told Verywell.

The Risk of New Variants 

If we take safety measures away too soon, experts warn we may be giving COVID-19 many more chances to mutate—especially in places where vaccination levels are lower.

Gebo explained that until the whole world is vaccinated or has immunity, the virus will continue to mutate. Research suggests mutations can take place in people who are infected with COVID-19 for long periods of time, causing variants to arise and circulate.

“The people that are most likely to have those mutations are people who are immunosuppressed, where the virus can last longer in their body,” Gebo said. “That’s one of the issues that we’re seeing: People who have prolonged viral replication—so the virus continues to be generated in their bodies—are the ones who are most likely to develop mutations.”

The good news is we are more prepared now and have tools in our toolbox to help fight the disease. Stephen Hoption Cann, PhD, a clinical professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health, told Verywell that while new variants arise unpredictably, countries around the world are actively monitoring for these variants so people can be warned in advance.

“Although the illness [from Omicron] is generally less severe than previous variants, there are still people being hospitalized and dying from this variant, so people at risk should be cautious,” Hoption Cann added. “Overall, those individuals at higher risk should be triple vaccinated and avoid settings that are higher-risk indoors, such as bars, gyms, or any indoor gathering where there is poor air circulation.”

How to Adapt Safely 

There is a lot of variability from one state to the next when it comes to health measures, mask mandates, and vaccination rates.

Timothy Brewer, MD, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Verywell that there are ways communities can adapt to the current COVID-19 situation in a balanced manner. It’s not wise to throw away every health measure, nor is it necessary to keep rules that are no longer warranted.

“We need to be trying to find that balance between making sure that we’re protecting the health of ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities, to the best extent possible, while minimizing any social or economic disruptions,” Brewer said.

He added that an example of this is continuing to wear masks in busy public settings, and ensuring people get vaccinated. Another protocol that may make sense to leave in place, he noted, is plexiglass partitions in places like grocery stores or banks and other physical space adaptations.

If yearly boosters become necessary, it will be important for people to get those, too.

Hoption Cann added that the places that do not take a gradual reopening or loosening of measures response have some risk of a COVID-19 resurgence.

“But this is also counterbalanced by the economic hardship of the restrictions, which have led to the closure of many businesses and many people facing high debt levels and unemployment,” he said. “I believe the economic costs are driving these changes and both must be weighed in determining the next course of action.”

On a public health level, Brewer said COVID-19 tests and treatments should be easily accessible for all citizens. Brewer also noted that paid sick days are a governmental policy change that would help encourage people to stay home when they’re not well.

“That would help reduce the risk of people transmitting viruses to others at work or others in the community,” he added.

What This Means For You

While we are in a different stage of the pandemic now than we were two years ago, it is too soon to abandon all safety measures, experts say. Getting vaccinated, evaluating your individual risk and following safety precautions like masking in high-risk situations remains key. 

A New “Normal” After COVID

While many people are eager to get back to “normal,” it’s more likely we will have to adapt to a new normal, Brewer noted. He believes mask-wearing will become more common in North America, particularly in the winter months when viruses tend to circulate.

People who are immunocompromised or at higher risk may choose to wear masks and practice social distance in public—even if rules are no longer in place. Gebo added that testing before seeing higher-risk relatives may also continue as an extra safety step.

But, we are also going to have to take our individual risks into account. Deciding if it’s safe to take your mask off or be in a public place partly depends on your own internal risk as an individual, Gebo said, and part of it depends on what’s happening in the groups around you.

It’s important to ask yourself: “How immunized is the population around me? And what are the rates of transmission?” Gebo said. “Many of us are making an individual risk-benefit analysis for deciding if we’re going to go to church or to the gym or visit relatives—because it’s important for our own mental health—and doing things to protect ourselves during those activities.”

As the pandemic continues, another thing to keep in mind is that COVID-19 isn’t going away for good. It’s here to stay, Brewer added.

“We need to figure out how to get that balance between protecting ourselves and our communities while trying to get on with our lives,” he said. “We seem to have politicized a lot of public health activities that should have nothing to do with politics. We need people to come together as a community.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Laura Hensley
Laura Hensley is an award-winning lifestyle journalist who has worked in some of the largest newsrooms in Canada.