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From pandemic to endemic: Here's why this week could mark the beginning of a shift

The combination of new COVID therapies and expanded vaccines this week could prove pivotal in the months to come.

MINNEAPOLIS — COVID-19 treatments and vaccines made big news this week and experts say it could mark a pivotal point in the pandemic.

On Friday, Pfizer unveiled a new pill that the company says cuts the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by nearly 90-percent. 

It comes a day after Britain approved a different pill made by Merck, which studies showed could cut hospitalizations in half.

The promise of those treatments, combined with the rollout of childhood vaccines this week, are all important developments, according to Dr. Bill Morice, president of Mayo Clinic Laboratories.

Kent Erdahl: "How do you feel, in general, right now about the pandemic? Do you think six months from now, we'll look back at a week like this as being significant?"

Dr. Bill Morice: "First of all, I'm an optimist so I'm always going to feel pretty good, but yeah, I think that there's a high likelihood that we will see this week as significant. Between getting through delta, kids getting vaccinated and getting things like oral medication for COVID, I would bet that six months from now, we'll see this as a kind of turning point for us."

Morice is more comfortable following the COVID-19 data than speculating about the future of a pretty unpredictable pandemic. But he says the COVID vaccines for young children and COVID-19 treatment pills are backed by extensive research that shows promise for the weeks and months to come.

Erdahl: "Which of these is more significant in your mind?"

Dr. Morice: "The approval of the vaccination for kids 5-11 is going to be a major turning point no matter what in terms of us just getting back to more normal life as a society. It's the old adage, 'An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.' Preventing someone from getting sick from COVID is a lot better than having the tools to treat people for COVID. 

That said, I think if you step back and look at it from the global perspective, most countries in the world have less than 10% of the population vaccinated. Having things like a pill that you can give someone with COVID, that prevents them from getting seriously ill, it will be a huge step forward."

Dr. Morice says it comes at a critical time in Minnesota. The weather is forcing more people indoors and hospitals are still struggling to keep pace treating patients with severe illness. He says having a combination of treatments and vaccines for a wide age group could help break the familiar waves we've become used to riding.

Dr. Morice: "Ideally, positivity rates won't correlate as strongly with hospitalization for much longer. We'll be able to keep people out of the hospital because they've been vaccinated or because we can get them treatments."

Erdahl: "Does that potentially signal the beginning of an 'endemic'?"

Dr. Morice: "I think if we don't see another variant emerge like the delta variant, which we have haven't now in a number of months across the globe, we really do appear to be potentially migrating towards the point where this is going to be more of an endemic illness that we're managing, as opposed to a pandemic that we are really focusing a lot of our health care and societal attention on, so I feel pretty good, honestly, that we're heading in that direction."

Kent: "Again — full disclosure — you're an optimist."

Dr. Morice: "Full disclosure, I am an optimist. I am a glass-half-full type of person, but I'm not alone in this opinion."