Mar 31, 2022, 7:07:11 AM CDT Feb 1, 2023, 9:05:50 PM CST

What's next for the COVID-19 pandemic?

Experts discuss life after Omicron and how to stay healthy as we move forward

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Year three of the pandemic started with a sudden spike in COVID‑19, as the Omicron variant spread quickly through adults and kids. Fortunately, cases have decreased from the Omicron surge. You might be wondering: What happens next? Will there be another variant? Will COVID‑19 ever end?

When will COVID‑19 end?

The reality is that COVID‑19 is never fully going away. However, this doesn't mean our lives will continue to be affected in the same ways as when COVID‑19 first emerged. Things have changed a lot since the start of the pandemic. We now have more knowledge about the virus, very effective vaccines, increased testing and effective treatments, like antiviral medicines, that can save lives.

"We're going to have to learn to live with this virus, just like we've learned to live with a host of other viruses," says Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., Director of Infectious Disease at Children's Health℠ and Professor at UT Southwestern.

Dr. Kahn says the virus may be becoming “endemic” versus a "pandemic." A pandemic is an outbreak of a disease that spreads around the world. An endemic is a disease that is common in a certain population and can pop up regularly or irregularly. Examples of endemic outbreaks in the United States include the influenza virus, which spreads more often in the winter months, and occasional outbreaks of norovirus (a stomach bug).

That might mean we need yearly COVID‑19 booster vaccines, just like annual flu shots. But overall, we might not need to take as many other precautions in the future.

What will the next COVID‑19 variant be?

Currently, Omicron and its BA.2 subvariant are the most common strains of COVID‑19 in the U.S. Beyond that, it's not clear what the next variant of COVID‑19 may be, how severe it will be or how much it will spread. The future of the virus largely depends on what variant comes next. All viruses mutate as they spread, but they can only mutate so much.

"Since we have such widespread immunity due to natural infection, immunization or both, if a new variant emerges, it has to be so different from the previous variants that it will sidestep that immunity," says Dr. Kahn. "I think the likelihood of that happening is low."

Still, as we saw with the Delta and Omicron variants, variants can change the course of the pandemic quickly. You can keep an eye on current variants through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.

How do we mentally move forward after Omicron?

After Omicron, case numbers dropped quickly – and for some families, it can feel too good to be true. While your neighbors might be getting out and about again, you might still feel anxious, and that's okay. You might have family members at risk for severe disease, or kids who are too young to get vaccinated.

"What is right for your family might look different than other families, and that doesn't mean you're doing it wrong," says Juliana Alba-Suarez, Ph.D., a Pediatric Psychologist at Children's Health and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern. “Every family is different, and it's important to focus on what is best and most helpful for your family."

During this time, it's also important to remember that your kids might be feeling anxious, too. "Parents can validate those emotions for children and hear them out," says Dr. Alba-Suarez. "You can make time for kids to talk about how they're feeling about the pandemic and its various phases."

You can also help your child by modeling healthy coping habits. You can practice deep breathing or visual imagery with your kids. You can encourage time away from electronics, such as during meal times, family activities and before bedtime. You can talk to your kids about how physical activity can help reduce stress and schedule family time outside, like going on walks.

"I think one of the biggest things that families can do is have an established routine at home," says Dr. Alba-Suarez. "Those routines could change a little bit as different phases of COVID‑19 move throughout, but having a routine where you prioritize healthy nutrition, activities and sleep can go a long way in helping mental health."

If you or your child are struggling with anxiety and depression, you can also seek support from a mental health professional.

How can you keep your family safe from COVID‑19 moving forward?

Moving forward, you should keep an eye on the level of COVID‑19 in your community. When numbers are low, it might be safe to venture out to museums, restaurants, the zoo and more with your kids. According to CDC guidelines, you can choose to mask if you want when numbers are low and depending on your family's risk.

No matter how many COVID‑19 cases are in your community, it's important to keep all eligible members of your family up to date on their COVID‑19 vaccines and booster shots. Vaccines are the best tool we have for maintaining low case numbers.

If a family member does show symptoms of COVID‑19, like coughing or a fever, get a COVID‑19 test. Staying home when you have COVID‑19 will help prevent the virus from spreading.

Over the next few months and years, cases will likely go up and down frequently, and it will remain important to focus on both physical and mental health. If you ever have any questions on what you should be doing to keep your family safe, ask your physician for advice.

See more COVID‑19 resources

Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family. See more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID‑19 hub.

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