The public health emergency expires today, but COVID-19 remains. How will we protect ourselves from it going forward? Rutgers Today asked Martin Blaser, Henry Rutgers Chair of the Human Microbiome, professor of medicine and pathology & laboratory medicine and director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine.

Why is it time to end the public health emergency? Is the pandemic over?
The pandemic is not over, but fortunately, it has trailed off. We are closer to the 'endemic' level' than the 'epidemic level.' It will likely be with us for some time, maybe indefinitely. So, we need to get used to it and adjust to our new reality. We are not post-COVID, but it is more manageable.

For most Americans, will the end of the public health emergency affect how we go about our daily lives? Does this signify that it’s no longer necessary to test, etc.?
Life is different than it was 3 1/2 years ago. We can mostly go about our business if we or our children are healthy. For those whose immune system is depressed or who have other chronic diseases, they will have to be more vigilant than before COVID. That will involve avoiding risky situations, some masking, continued testing and vaccinations and seeing doctors if ill.

Will this affect the development of new vaccines, particularly federal funding for research and development?
Federal funding for the development and deployment of new vaccines will decline, but I am certain that the government and the major pharma companies are continuing to watch which viruses are coming up so that they can scale up quickly if necessary. The situation should never be as bad as in early 2020 because there is now a lot of immunity in the human population due to natural infections and vaccines – versus none earlier – and because we have a repertoire of treatments now available and probably a much-shortened development/production pipeline if important new variants emerge.

Can I still get a free test or vaccine? How will access to tests and vaccines change? Will at-home tests still be available, or will I have to go to a healthcare provider for a test?
These questions will depend on people's health insurance and the kind of coverage they provide for tests and vaccines. This, too, will be an emerging field.

Are you concerned these changes could open the door to increased cases? If cases increase, what measures will track cases and warn the public?
Yes, by relaxing our cautions and being less reliant on vaccines, a new wave may emerge faster and with more consequences than at present. But still, we should have good ways to deal with it by restarting different degrees of social isolation (including masking), vaccination, and treatment as necessary. If there is a new wave, many people will immediately take more action to protect themselves and their families. The World Health Organization, the federal government, state health departments and universities will undoubtedly continue tracing cases globally, nationally, and locally, so there will be advance warning if cases pick up.