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Has COVID-19 reached endemic levels in Florida?

Infectious disease specialist not ready to say pandemic has ended
Posted at 3:06 PM, Feb 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-22 18:39:04-05

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — By now, everyone has heard of the terms epidemic and pandemic.

Now some would say we are transitioning into a COVID-19 endemic.

Florida has seen new COVID-19 cases drop 90 percent since the beginning of January, but medical experts say we are not smooth sailing into an endemic just yet.

WPTV spoke Tuesday with infectious disease specialist Dr. Larry Bush to gauge his thoughts on where Florida is headed as we navigate COVID-19 after two years.

"Endemic means a disease that's in the community that's always prevalent to some low number," Bush said. "For instance, there's always influenza in the world and our country at some low number that may increase."

WATCH: Dr. Larry Bush discusses endemic vs. pandemic

Facebook Q&A: Endemic vs. Pandemic

That is compared to an epidemic, which means that there is suddenly a large number of cases of a disease that may or may not have been in the community and rapidly infects many people.

Finally, a pandemic is defined as an epidemic that spreads not just to one country but to several parts of the world.

Bush said we are on our way to COVID-19 becoming endemic similar to the flu.

"There's many, many more people in this country who have been infected than 78 million, so therefore because of that, and because of vaccination, we are reaching herd immunity," Bush said.

Despite the lower case levels being an encouraging sign, Bush is not ready to say the pandemic has become endemic.

"I think we still have to get through the springtime and maybe early summer," Bush said. "Remember, just last week the positivity rate in Palm Beach County was 6%. But at the end of the delta [wave], we were approaching numbers like 2 to 2.5%."

Free N95 masks
A product stall filled with free N95 respirator masks, provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, sits outside the pharmacy at this Jackson, Miss., Kroger grocery store Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. As the omicron wave of the coronavirus subsides, several U.S. states including New York and Illinois ended mask mandates this week for indoor settings, while others lifted requirements at schools.

He said he continues to urge people to use common sense safety measures to prevent an uptick in case levels.

"It's a little bit shortsighted to think that you can't become infected just because the numbers are dropping," Bush said.

Bush said data gathering by clinical labs that test for COVID-19 indicate that about one-third of Florida residents, or about 8 million people, have been infected with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

He said it is possible that we could have yearly vaccines for COVID-19 that are altered to whatever variant is transmitting at the moment.

Bush said at-home tests will make it difficult to keep an accurate count of new COVID-19 cases, but he said with testing, vaccines and treatment, the virus may always be present but manageable.

However, we can't let new strains catch us off guard, he said.

"The numbers are dropping quickly but not quite to the number where we can say that the epidemic is over or the pandemic is over," Bush said. "We need to not take our eye off the ball here."

The key to that, he said, is boosting and keeping up with vaccines every year like those for the flu.

"The virus can't mutate outside of a living being, whether that's a human or an animal, and we have control over that by vaccines and by rapid diagnosis and treatment," Bush said.

Out of a population of about 22 million in Florida, 8.2 million people have received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, but only 5 million of the 8 million have been boosted.