The number of Covid-19 infections nationwide has flatlined after weeks on the decline. The vaccination rate for all Americans lingers, for now, at just under 60 percent. Yet Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration and a medical expert who issued a prescient warning about the pandemic in early 2020, now says the worst is nearly over.
In an interview on Sunday with CBS’s Face the Nation, Gottlieb, who sits on the board of vaccine-maker Pfizer, explained what comes next with the Delta variant, why the pandemic phase of the Covid-19 crisis will soon end, and why the vaccine roll-out for five- to seven-year-olds has greatly improved on previous bungled immunization campaigns.
Earlier this week, Gottlieb remarked that after 18 months of lockdowns and extensive health precautions, after more than 750,000 deaths and 46 million infections, the end of the Covid-19 pandemic was now “in sight.” On Sunday, Face the Nation host Margaret Brennan pressed Gottlieb on why he believed that to be true.
Gottlieb explained that as the Delta variant reaches its final stage, he predicted the U.S. would exit the “pandemic phase of this virus” and enter a “more endemic phase,” one in which life returned to something closer to pre-pandemic conditions thanks to steadily rising vaccination rates, children getting access to vaccines, and newly developed treatments for Covid infections. He pointed to the United Kingdom, which saw its own Delta variant wave rise and fall this year, as an example of what the U.S.’s trajectory might look like.
“In the U.K., we saw a spike in cases, but it’s pretty much back to normal,” Gottlieb said. “Life is at pre-pandemic types of levels in the U.K. right now. And cases are starting to decline again.”
Gottlieb added that, in the U.S., as infections continued to decline and vaccinations increased, “people are going to go out more, cases may pick up, but that doesn’t mean that we’re entering into another wave of infection,” he said. “I think we’re close to the end of this. This Delta wave is the last major wave of infection.”
Gottlieb explained that medical and public-health experts have often said that reaching two key milestones would signal that the pandemic was nearing its conclusion. One was vaccine access for children. The other was a widespread, easy-to-take drug to treat coronavirus at home and prevent people from hospitalization or death. Millions of children are signing up newly available vaccines. And the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Merck have announced the development of treatment drugs, with more expected from other drug makers, Gottlieb said.
To be clear, Gottlieb’s predictions don’t signal the end of the Covid-19 virus for good. Moving from the pandemic to the endemic phase means learning to live with the coronavirus in the same way humans live with other viruses. That could mean annual vaccinations against the virus. It could mean wearing masks in certain settings, or more commonplace testing, or screening for domestic or international travel. But it would also signal the end of outright travel bans, lockdowns, and burdensome requirements on businesses and schools.
That moment will likely come once the Delta variant has burned through the rest of the unvaccinated population, Gottlieb said, a process that is playing right now. After tearing across the South and the Midwest this summer, the Delta variant now appears to be moving through the Great Lakes region and parts of New England. That spread, he said, explains the current stalling-out in the decline in infections. But it shouldn’t be a major cause for concern so long as the push to vaccinate as many Americans as possible continues.
“This has to play out,” Gottlieb said. “The reality is this Delta infection is going to capture most people who remain unvaccinated at this point.” He went on, “We’ve done a phenomenal job vaccinating the adult population, almost 81% of adults over the age of 18 have had at least one dose of vaccine. But for those who aren’t getting vaccinated, they’re going to get infected with this Delta variant, and that’s going to ultimately be the endgame.”