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Duke health experts: Persistent mask-wearing, more vaccine development could lead to endemic

Charles Mandelin and Katie Overbey prepare the first Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines for administering at Duke University Hospital in Durham on Monday, December 14, 2020.
Shawn Rocco
Duke Health
Dec. 14, 2020 FILE -- Charles Mandelin and Katie Overbey prepare the first Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines for administering at Duke University Hospital in Durham.

Health experts at Duke University say it will take persistent mask-wearing and more vaccine development to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers have been studying how the coronavirus could become endemic. That means the virus would not be eradicated, but would be rarer and less deadly, and the spread of COVID-19 would drop to a manageable rate.

Lavanya Vasudevan of Duke's Global Health Institute says public funding for infectious disease research often wanes after an outbreak is over. But she says scientists still have a lot to learn about the virus.

“We need better vaccines. We have really good ones right now, but we do need better vaccines,” Vasudevan said. “Combination vaccines are often helpful, so if we have a flu plus COVID vaccine, that's something that could be particularly helpful with messaging and increasing demand.”

Vasudevan adds that includes developing a vaccine that's safe and effective for children under the age of 5. Right now, about 70% of adults in North Carolina are fully vaccinated.

Still, according to Dr. Christopher Woods at Duke, there is no one metric that transitions a disease from pandemic to endemic. And even when COVID-19 becomes endemic, there likely will be periodic outbreaks.

“Where we see intermittent surges of both known strains or replacement strains. We're liable to see bumps in case counts in general and identifying those case counts is going to be dependent on having those surveillance systems in place,” Woods said.

Woods and his colleagues say mask-wearing could become more routine in settings like hospitals or airports.

This week, Wake County announced it is adding two more locations for residents to get free N-95 masks. The expansion to five sites comes after two of them quickly ran out of masks last week. Health officials are recommending the extra protection that N-95 masks provide.

Will Michaels is WUNC's General Assignment Reporter and fill-in host for "Morning Edition"
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