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Some experts say deaths and hospitalizations are better benchmarks of the COVID-19 pandemic than new cases. Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times via GettyImages
  • Health officials have been reporting lately that the average daily number of new COVID-19 cases is rising in the United States.
  • However, some experts say the focus should shift to COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths as the primary indicators of the pandemic’s status.
  • They say this is because almost all new cases among vaccinated people do not develop into serious illnesses, so counting cases has become less important.

As the world gets closer to its third year with the COVID-19 pandemic and the more than 5 million deaths it’s caused, a growing number of experts say the disease is here to stay, and it’s time we start looking at the novel coronavirus in a new light.

Specifically, they say it’s time to measure the pandemic’s impact by shifting how we look at the statistics.

Experts say vaccinated people can still get COVID-19, but their risk of being hospitalized or dying is much lower than an unvaccinated person.

So, instead of looking at the case numbers, experts say it’s time to focus on the severity of the pandemic through the number of hospitalizations and deaths.

“It’s always been the way we should have been looking at it,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, told Healthline. “Hospitalizations and deaths are much better documenters than new cases.”

Schaffner added that testing capacity has been limited throughout the pandemic, which can cause an undercounting of COVID-19 cases. So can false negatives, especially for at-home rapid tests.

Dr. Monica Gandhi is an infectious disease expert and a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

She wrote an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle this month saying, among other things, that herd immunity is no longer achievable, and we need to rethink the notion of tracking COVID-19 by new cases.

“It made sense to do it before,” Gandhi told Healthline. “We thought somehow we could break the chain of transmission. But it was so transmissible, you couldn’t break that chain.”

But with more vaccines becoming available as well as new antiviral drugs effective at limiting COVID-19’s severity, Gandhi said case rates are no longer an effective barometer in measuring our pandemic response.

The pandemic is widespread enough that most people will be exposed to the coronavirus at some point, so the sooner we get used to the idea, the sooner we get back to normal, she said.

“The idea was, in general, if cases went up, numbers of people in the hospital went up,” Gandhi said. “Now, it’s not only de-linked, but it’s completely muddled. Cases and hospitalizations are no longer linked.”

Although COVID-19 remains a bigger threat than influenza, both are respiratory infections, Gandhi pointed out.

“We need to get everyone on board,” she said. “We’re never stomping out the flu or any other respiratory virus. We only did that with smallpox, and we wore that on our skin (meaning it was easier to diagnose visually).”

Gandhi said the notion we could completely eradicate COVID-19 was a political idea instead of a practical one.

“It’s all political,” she said. “It’s more serious than the flu. But once you’re vaccinated, it’s not. Nobody knows how many cases of the flu are in a particular city. I mean, I do, but I’m a doctor. But we don’t follow that. People have reduced trust of public health officials.”

The way to regain some of that trust is realistically dealing with the novel coronavirus by opening things up and continuing to push vaccinations, especially as we see a typical uptick in cases coming this winter, Gandhi said.

“Americans are all going to be exposed (at some point), I’m sorry to say,” Gandhi told Healthline. “That’s how a respiratory disease works and how they’ve always worked.”

Schaffner agrees we need to learn to live with COVID-19.

“For the rest of our lives, we will likely need regular boosters,” he said. “There are vaccine researchers working on combining the COVID-19 and flu vaccines (into one shot) right now.”