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It’s 2022. And people have learned to live surrounded by the novel coronavirus and its many variants moving across the world that cause COVID-19.
Employees are back in the office using a staggered schedule. Kids are in the classroom again. Live theater, concerts and sporting events are playing to audiences across South Florida. And people no longer need to wear a mask to enter a store or dine at a restaurant.
Occasionally, you’ll still see someone masked up. The typical Miami kiss greeting is more exclusive, reserved for those you truly trust. And negative tests are still required for international travel.
But what’s happening with vaccines? Will we need booster shots? Will little kids be eligible for the vaccine? Will the pandemic be over?
Experts interviewed by the Miami Herald are looking to the future. Here’s what they are saying about life in 2022:
The future of vaccines
The novel coronavirus, or one of its many variants, will still be circulating in 2022, but at much lower levels because of vaccinations.
“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to 2019 where we’ll have no COVID,” said Dr. Sergio Segarra, chief medical officer for Baptist Hospital. “I think there will always be a certain amount of our population that will have COVID.”
Children younger than 12 will be eligible for a shot and there’s a chance at least one vaccine will have received full FDA authorization by then.
Vaccines will mainly be given through pharmacies like CVS, Walgreens and Publix, just like the flu shot. Government-run sites will be closed although some might reopen to offer booster shots, which both Pfizer and Moderna expect will be needed.
“This may become an annual wellness strategy to reduce the effects of the virus as we do with the flu,” said Dr. Eneida O. Roldan, chief executive officer of the Florida International University Health Care Network. “The distribution will be decentralized for convenience and compliance.”
One constant: the challenging, but critical, public health mission to combat vaccine hesitancy and misinformation, particularly in underserved communities. Efforts to get people shots across the world will still be underway.
Dr. William Moss, the executive director of the International Vaccines Access Center at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, is optimistic that life will return to normal, but it will be a slow journey. The way he sees it, people will have two options: Get vaccinated. Or get sick.
“We’re not going to be able to vaccinate and immunize the world in a year, and I don’t think we’ll actually ever get rid of this virus,” Moss said.
Three outcomes are possible in fighting infectious diseases: eradication, elimination and control. Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980 by the World Health Organization, and to this day, is the only infectious disease to achieve the distinction.
Polio was eliminated in developed countries. And in 2000, measles was declared eliminated in the U.S., though travelers sometimes still bring the disease into the country, which can cause outbreaks like in 2019.
The U.S. will likely control COVID-19, which means the disease will be manageable enough that there will only be occasional cases instead of outbreaks, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said during FIU’s annual Hemispheric Security Conference in May.
But to get there, the overwhelming majority of the population will need to be vaccinated.
“Vaccination, vaccination, and vaccination. It’s as simple as that,” Fauci said. “We have been fortunate enough that we have a highly effective series of vaccines — not just one — that if we vaccinate the overwhelming portion of the population, we can get to that strict control.”
What will Florida’s role in vaccine distribution be?
“I wish I had a crystal ball and I can tell what the future is going to be and what the demands are going to be,” said Kevin Guthrie.
He’s the new director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, which is tasked with the state’s response for disasters like hurricanes. For more than a year, the division has also worked with the Florida Department of Health to handle the pandemic.
He expects the division will have a minimal role in vaccine distribution by 2022 — if not sooner — because it’s already moving from emergency to “non-emergency mode.”
State-run testing sites have already closed, with state-run vaccine sites phasing out in June. Each county will still have the option to convert the state-run vaccine sites to county-run sites to keep them open.
The changes are part of Florida’s plan to leave vaccine distribution to county health departments and local providers, including doctors’ offices, pharmacies and clinics.
Guthrie said the division is moving away from distribution because vaccine sites are no longer overwhelmed by long lines or crashing online appointment schedulers. Cases are going down and people can get a vaccine as easily as they would a flu shot. More than 10 million people in Florida have already received at least one dose.
And when a provider asks the state for more shots, the request is filled within 48 to 72 hours, according to the division.
Guthrie said the state is still in a “wait and see approach” about booster shots. But if counties need boosters, the division will be ready to help operate vaccine sites again, this time for boosters.
He also said the state will “continue to make sure anybody that wants a vaccine, gets the vaccine.”
What will hospital visits be like?
Goodbye to temperature checks and screenings at the hospital entrance. That’s Dr. Segarra’s optimistic view of life inside any one of the Baptist Health South Florida’s 11 hospitals and 100-plus outpatient facilities and physician practices.
Segarra envisions that we’ll have had our booster shots by 2022 and that Baptist’s admitted patients who have COVID in May 2022 are half the number admitted in May 2021. Figure on 20 to 30 patients in May 2022, rather than the 70 in mid-May 2021, Segarra predicts.
By May 2022, you should be able to stroll into a hospital and engage with a worker at the check-in desk not unlike the way you did in 2019. Most likely you are doing it mask-free, too, unless you’re more comfortable with the protection.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will still have sway with advisement on the use of masks, social distancing and other now-familiar actions, should the need arise.
“We cannot predict the future,” said Lidia Amoretti-Morgado, Jackson Health System’s media relations manager. “Jackson Health System will adhere to any new guidelines provided by the CDC, as well as the state and local government.”
But Jackson, which took a leading role in vaccinating the public, starting with seniors in December 2020 and children 12 and up in May, will not be a vaccination site. Those lines outside the front doors? That’s so January 2021.
“At this moment, we do not foresee Jackson reopening its community vaccination program in the future,” Amoretti-Morgado said.
When will the global pandemic be over?
Dr. Jarbas Barbosa da Silva Jr. is the assistant director of Pan American Health Organization, which serves as the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for the Americas.
When the Miami Herald asked what vaccine and cases criteria WHO would use to decide if the global pandemic is over, Barbosa said there’s still a lot of uncertainties about the future. While he’s hopeful that COVID-19 will be controlled in the world by next year, he said it will depend on whether every country has equitable access to vaccines.
“We don’t know yet what the immunization coverage level” will be “that we need to control the transmission,” Barbosa said. “But some estimations said that you need at least 70 or 80%. To reach this level is the main objective we have now.”
Barbosa said that the whole world must make that kind of commitment in the next year to at least get transmission under control. That’s the only way people can resume “regular life again,” he added.
A lasting lesson from COVID
Now that we have lived during a pandemic, optimists may see that the COVID crisis has provided some teachable moments.
That’s one message FIU Health Care Network’s CEO Dr. Roldan offers.
“Aside from the attention to health and adapting to ways to keep us healthy, the pandemic has changed the landscape in many aspects of our lives — personal, lifestyle, professional, work access, productivity. ... Do not look back. Learn from the past to improve the present, adapt to changes and innovate for the future.”