Infectious disease expert studies the delta variant.

A pandemic expert on Monday told long-term care providers that going back to normal and completely eliminating COVID-19 “will likely never happen” in the United States. 

“We’ve actually only been able to eliminate one disease and that’s smallpox,” said Saskia Popescu, Ph.D., of George Mason University. 

“We are more likely to move into an endemic state with COVID-19, which means it’s mostly controlled but we have pockets of it and little bursts of it in unvaccinated populations and even breakthrough infections, but we’re not seeing uncontrolled spread,” she added. 

Popescu’s comments came while speaking to LeadingAge members during a COVID-19 update conference call. She stressed that providers must have “realistic” expectations with the pandemic. 

“That concept of we’re going to eliminate COVID is very unrealistic,” she explained, envisioning a transition to an existence “… not in a pandemic state but more in a sustainable approach. I’m hoping that we’ll treat this still with seriousness but in a way that doesn’t continuously strain and stress our healthcare infrastructure.” 

Providers must continue to focus on getting as many residents and staff members vaccinated as possible since there is likely going to be another surge in cases this winter, simply because many people could be traveling and individuals will be inside more due to cold weather, she said.

Popescu also said that coronavirus variants, other than delta, shouldn’t necessarily be feared by providers — but their progress should be monitored. A United Kingdom-based expert echoed those comments recently when asked about the delta subvariant, AY.4.2

“Viruses mutate. This is exactly what they do … so variants are expected,” Popescu explained. “The biggest piece to this is that mutations occur where transmission, meaning spread, occurs. So if we can really spread in the community we reduce the chance that the virus will continue mutating.” 

Popescu advised providers to perform a gap analysis of their COVID-19 response to-date, analyzing each step, whether it went right or wrong.

“Building a sustained approach to COVID-19 is also about building general preparedness for infectious disease events moving forward,” she noted. “That should not be an annual tabletop exercise or drills. It should be a quarterly check-in.”