February 26, 2021

Let’s not overreact but also not underreact to the fact that this week, new cases rose at a rate higher than the seven-day average. It could be a minor blip. It could also be a reflection of the fast-spreading variants of the coronavirus.

This week, President Joe Biden officially extended the national COVID-19 emergency declaration into a second year. It raises the question of how we will know when we are no longer in a “pandemic.”

The World Health Organization walked the “pandemic” into our lives in steps. First, on Jan. 30, 2020, WHO called it a “public health emergency of international concern.” But then, on March 11, the WHO said we were experiencing a full-blown pandemic.

In truth, there is no exact definition of what it takes for WHO to call an outbreak a “pandemic,” or to call it off, for that matter. One would suppose that a pandemic is what we have when a “public health emergency of international concern” — which is actually referred to as a “PHEIC” — gets worse.

The global policy institute Chatham House explains:

The term has hitherto been applied almost exclusively to new forms of flu, such as H1N1 in 2009 or Spanish flu in 1918, where the lack of population immunity and absence of a vaccine or effective treatments makes the outbreak potentially much more deadly than seasonal flu (which, although global, is not considered a pandemic).

It is generally accepted that once health authorities call an outbreak a pandemic, public policy should move toward isolating the intruder. On March 13, 2020, President Donald Trump used the WHO declaration as a foundation for calling COVID-19 a “national emergency.”

Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center and an expert in virology and immunology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, offers a baseline for when we might be able to say we are no longer in an emergency.

“We’ll have a much, much lower case count, hospitalization count, death count,” Offit says. He says maybe the threshold could be when the U.S. records fewer than 5,000 new cases daily (we are recording 69,000 new cases now) and records fewer than 100 COVID-related deaths each day (we are at about 1,900 now). Those figures would be on par with the number of people who die from the seasonal flu each day during flu season.

Others are suggesting that we should reach some level of people who have been vaccinated.

However you want to measure our progress, we are substantially far away from that level right now. The Atlantic calculates that we are probably months away from reaching a level that a reasonable person would say we are no longer in an emergency. But we are heading in the right direction.

This article originally appeared in Covering COVID-19, a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

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