What Will Life Be Like for Families Until the COVID-19 Pandemic Ends—and Beyond?

We may not know when the COVID-19 pandemic will end, but we do know that it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Here's how parents—and families—can learn to live with the virus.

An image of a mother putting mask on daughter.
Photo: Getty Images.

It's been two years since the first strain of COVID-19 was discovered, and since then, a lot has changed. Cities, states, and entire nations were shut down or locked down. They have since reopened, only to see second, third, and (in some cases) fourth waves. Three COVID-19 vaccines were developed: Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson. To date, more than 10.7 billion doses have been administered worldwide. And several variants took hold. The world has been subject to Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Omicron, to name a few. And while things are admittedly looking up, infection rates are low and (in many locations) vaccine and mask mandates are being dropped, many families are still worried what this means, i.e. what comes next—especially as COVID-19 moves from the pandemic phase to the endemic one.

"COVID-19 is well on its way to becoming an endemic disease," says Erica Susky, an infection control practitioner in Toronto, Canada. "If a disease not does become endemic, the only other scenario is for the disease to be eliminated. But with all that is occurring in the current pandemic, it is evident that SARS-CoV-2 is excellent at human-to-human transmission and will continue to circulate, likely indefinitely." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agrees. In February 2022, the agency issued new guidelines for living with the coronavirus.

"We're in a stronger place today as a nation with more tools to protect ourselves and our communities from COVID-19," says Dr. Rochelle Paula Walensky, an American physician-scientist who is the director of the CDC. "With widespread population immunity, the overall risk is now substantially lower."

For this reason, the CDC decided to change their mask guidance. The organization split each county into different community levels (low, medium, or high) based on factors like hospital admission, hospital capacity, and new COVID-19 cases. You can check out a color-coded map here. People in counties with low or medium community levels—about 70 percent of the country—can take off their face masks (though immunocomprimsed and high-risk people in medium communities should speak to their doctors first). Only people in high-level communities should continue masking indoors. Social distancing is also no longer necessary in many places.

For some, these new recommendations are is worrisome. Parents, especially of young, unvaccinated children, may be concerned about how changing measures affects the youngest members of our community. But with COVID here to stay, what can parents do (and say)? How can we learn to live with this virus?

From the status of the disease to coping skills, here's everything we know about the future of COVID-19.

When Will the Pandemic End?

While everyone wants to know when the pandemic will end, the answer is unclear—and far more nuanced than one would imagine. Vaccine rates contribute to the timeline. Mackenzie Weise, MPH, CIC, an infection prevention clinical program manager for clinical surveillance and compliance at Wolters Kluwer Health, is optimistic we will "reach a point when COVID-19 isn't a severe threat to most people, but right now, we need more people to step up and get vaccinated." This will reduce the virus' power and slow the spread, as vaccines lessen the overall infection rate. They can also stop the formation of new variants.

Speaking of variants, mutations and variations also have the ability to affect things. "New variants have the potential to lengthen the timeline of the 'end' of the pandemic," says Susky.

"Variants are formed when viruses are transmitted in a population," Mona Amin, D.O., a board-certified pediatrician based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in an Instagram Live interview with Parents adds. And in order for things to truly change, many factors must fall into place.

"There will likely be more cycles of infection, vaccination boosters, and mutations in the virus before endemicity is achieved," Weise says.

In fact, Dr. Walensky also said guidance on masks and distancing could change, depending on the course of the pandemic. "We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing when our levels are low, and then have the ability to reach for them again, should things get worse in the future," she said in a February 25 press briefing. "We at CDC will continue to follow the science and epidemiology to make public health recommendations and guidance based on the data."

COVID-19 also has the potential to become an epidemic instead of an endemic, which occurs when the number of cases of a disease suddenly increases above what is usually expected. Still, the news is encouraging and optimistic. In many states, infection rates have hit an all-time low.

What Should Parents Do Until the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Over—Or At Least More Manageable?

One of the best ways to protect yourself from COVID-19 is to get vaccinated—and to continue to get vaccinated, as advised. "Vaccine effectiveness declines over time," Weise says. "This we know. In order to be fully protected, individuals 5 and older should receive a booster shot" at least five months after their primary vaccine series. Everyone 6 months and older should receive their two-dose vaccine series.

Individuals should also wear masks when the threat of transmission is high, the CDC says. "Masking indoors is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19." Cloth face masks might not as effective against Omicron, so families might choose to wear surgical masks or respirators (like N95s) instead. Practicing good hygiene is also essential. Frequent hand washing, for example, stops the spread of germs.

"Do not go out when sick, wash your hands often, and wear a mask in public places or in groups whenever possible," says Susky. "You can also mitigate risk by attending smaller and fewer events and by choosing events that occur outdoors versus indoors."

That said, while these practices make sense, it's also important to note that many do not apply to young children. Kids under the age of 2 cannot—and should not—be masked. Those under the age of 5 cannot be vaccinated, and immunocompromised children face their own challenges, leaving many parents to make tough decisions.

"We view most things as too risky, given that we have an unvaccinated 4-year-old," mom Brenay Brockenbrough says. "Katy mostly stays at home with us, and on the rare occasion we go out, we mask and sanitize everything. We do try to do some things. We take her out late at night, when crowds are down. We don't eat in at restaurants or other public spaces, and we avoid crowds and people as much as possible. But it's hard, on us and her, and it's deeply impacted her social development."

How Can Parents Learn to Live With the Virus? What Steps Should We Take?

"People can learn to live with COVID-19 by utilizing infection prevention techniques and public health measures often implemented during the pandemic," says Susky. "This includes masking, social distancing, rapid antigen testing, and working from home with the goal of allowing regular activities to occur even with COVID-19 in the community."

It's also important to gauge risk levels and do what you are comfortable with, i.e. while you may be postponing your trip to Disneyland, seeing Grandma and Grandpa—or playing with a pod mate—may be important to you, your child, and your family.

"Risk versus reward is going to be different in every situation—and for every family—but in order to make the best decision for you, it helps to fully understand the risk," says Kristi Beroldi, LPC and assistant clinic director for Thriveworks in Reston, Virginia. "That means having all the information regarding a potential event or get-together, i.e. how many people will be in attendance? Are they vaccinated? Will this event be inside or outside? Will masks be required? Even with answers to all of these questions, a decision about whether or not to do something is difficult, but it may help to sit down as a family and create a set of boundaries. Once a set of boundaries are created, and all the information obtained regarding an event, you can essentially cross-reference things and see if any boundaries are violated and there is anything perceived as an increased risk and you have your answer about whether or not the risk outweighs the reward."

What Should Parents Do to Help Their Children Mentally, Socially, and Emotionally?

In addition to keeping our children healthy, we want to keep them well—mentally, socially, and emotionally—but both scenarios have been difficult in the midst of a pandemic, when anxiety and stress levels are high. The good news is there are things every parent can do to support their children.

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends parents stay as calm, cool, and collected as possible. "Children will react to and follow your reactions," the NASP writes. "They learn from your example." Be mindful of what you say in front of them. Keep their media exposure limited. Explain what you are doing to keep them safe, and ask them if they have any questions. Answer said questions truthfully but don't give unnecessary details or facts. It's also important to listen, with compassion and empathy.

"Your discussion about COVID-19 can increase or decrease your child's fear," NASP adds. "Remind your child that your family is healthy, and you are going to do everything within your power to keep loved ones safe and well. Carefully listen or have them draw or write out their thoughts and feelings and respond with truth and reassurance."

You may also want to consider introducing a third person or party and/or contacting a mental health professional if your child exhibits any signs of depression, anxiety, and/or PTSD. Severe behavioral changes can be a sign something is amiss. A loss of interest in beloved activities, like sports or dance, may also signal something is wrong, and mood changes are common. Children with depression often exhibit sensitivities, anger, and/or feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, or hopelessness.

Caring for your own mental health is also important, for your child's wellbeing but your own. You can't pour from an empty cup after all, so be sure to check in with yourself and seek help, if/when necessary.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles