“The question is not when do we eliminate the virus in the country,” said Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center and an expert in virology and immunology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Rather, it’s when do we have the virus sufficiently under control. “We’ll have a much, much lower case count, hospitalization count, death count,” Offit said. “What is that number that people are comfortable with?” In his view, “the doors will open” when the country gets to fewer than 5,000 new cases a day, and fewer than 100 deaths.
That latter threshold, of 100 COVID-19 deaths a day, was repeated by other experts, following the logic that it approximates the nation’s average death toll from influenza. In most recent years, the flu has killed 20,000 to 50,000 Americans annually, which averages out to 55 to 140 deaths a day, said Joseph Eisenberg, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan. “This risk was largely considered acceptable by the public,” Eisenberg said. Monica Gandhi, an infectious-disease specialist at UC San Francisco, made a similar calculation. “The end to the emergency portion of the pandemic in the United States should be heralded completely by the curtailing of severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19,” she said. “Fewer than 100 deaths a day—to mirror the typical mortality of influenza in the U.S. over a typical year—is an appropriate goal.”
The “flu test” proposed here is not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison.