COVID evolves as it marks fourth year

Mar. 16—HIGH POINT — What was the traditional normal for society before the coronavirus pandemic may turn out to be the new normal after all.

During the first four years of the COVID-19 threat, one of the common phrases used to describe changes in behaviors and customs was "the new normal." But with COVID-19 beaten back as a public health crisis through vaccinations and large-scale immunity, the traditional normal has made a welcome comeback, said Jordan Smith, assistant professor of clinical sciences at High Point University.

"We are in a new normal that looks reasonably similar to the old normal," Smith said.

COVID-19 is trending to a status where it is monitored and treated like other respiratory illnesses, which is a major accomplishment given the early severity of the virus, Smith told The High Point Enterprise.

This weekend is the fourth anniversary of when health officials confirmed Guilford County's first case of COVID-19. As cases and deaths from COVID-19 mushroomed, restrictions through mask mandates, social distancing and crowd-gathering limits and take-out food orders as the only option for restaurants were put in place to slow the spread of the virus.

The rollout of the first vaccines in late 2020 began to shift the dynamics of the pandemic. By the spring of last year, the federal government phased out the public health emergency instituted at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis.

Earlier this year the U.S. Centers for Disease Control rolled back the number of days for isolation of patients who contract COVID-19, one of the last significant limitations in place.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services says noticeable progress has been made.

"We are in a different place with COVID-19 than we were earlier during the pandemic," the department said in a statement to The Enterprise. "A high percentage of the population has some protective immunity against COVID-19, and we have the tools — including vaccination, testing and treatment — to manage COVID-19 as we do for other common respiratory illnesses."

At the outset of the pandemic medical professionals hoped to corral COVID-19 so that it would become treated like the flu, Smith said. As the fourth anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic arrives, it appears the goal has been all but achieved.

"I know some people are suffering some long-term consequences that are very real," Smith said. "At the same time the infection rates are declining and there are fewer hospitalizations. It's becoming more like another respiratory infection that we just deal with as a society."

Going forward, one key to keeping COVID-19 in check involves people getting regular vaccine booster shots when they are updated for new variants of the virus. Smith said people who don't get vaccinated still have the greatest risk of developing serious, potentially life-threatening symptoms.

Vaccinations remain the best way to prevent COVID-19 illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Vaccinations are especially important for those at higher risk of severe viral respiratory disease, including people 65 years and older, children younger than 5, pregnant women, those with a weakened immune system and those with certain medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease and obesity," the department said.

pjohnson@hpenews.com — 336-888-3528 — @HPEpaul