COVID isn't over, but people have moved on from the pandemic. What happens as cases climb?

A photo illustration shows the emoji that conveys a shrug, with a plastic COVID test forming the vertical central part and two bent nasal swabs forming the arms.
Experts say the COVID fatigue trend — dropping precautions, such as masking, and not staying vigilant with updated boosters — is troubling. (Photo illustration: Victoria Ellis for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

While the pandemic is not over, the majority of Americans are over COVID — with what’s known as COVID fatigue — but experts say this mindset could impact your health.

If you’re no longer concerned about being diagnosed with COVID-19 or preoccupied with COVID-related news and prevention strategies, you’re certainly not alone: According to a Yahoo News/YouGov online poll conducted from Aug. 17 to 21, 2023, only 7% of the 1,665 U.S. adults surveyed said they are “very worried” about getting COVID (down from 11% in early September 2022 and 13% in April 2022).

Even though more Americans — 31% — say they are “somewhat worried” about testing positive for COVID, this number is down from 43% in September 2022 and 45% in April 2022.

It’s not surprising that the percentage of adults wearing a face mask in public has also diminished. The same Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that 12% of Americans reportedly wore a mask outside their home “always” or “most of the time” during the week before the survey was conducted last month — down from 27% in January 2023 and 60% in January 2022.

What is COVID fatigue?

“‘COVID fatigue’ is the term for people who are tired of worrying about COVID infections and thus have stopped precautions, such as masking, as well as staying vigilant with new variants and even updated vaccines and boosters,” Dr. Purvi Parikh, an infectious disease, allergy and immunology specialist at NYU Langone Health, tells Yahoo Life.

As a result of dealing with COVID fatigue, some may not be up to date on the current variants spreading around the country that are responsible for the latest seasonal uptick in the coronavirus, which causes upper respiratory symptoms such as a runny nose, nasal congestion, headache and cough. “Eris, or EG.5, is a subvariant of Omicron and is the current dominant strain,” Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician and researcher at Stanford University, tells Yahoo Life.

The other variant that is circulating this season is Pirola (BA.2.86). “It has many mutations on its spike protein compared to EG.5 and XBB.1.5, the latter which is what the newer boosters are based off,” says Karan. Since Pirola has a total of 34 mutations, this variant has health officials concerned because it may evade vaccines or treatments, adds Parikh. “It’s too soon to tell,” she states.

Experts are ‘worried’ about COVID fatigue

Parikh finds the COVID fatigue trend to be troubling. “Yes, I am worried it will impact Americans, as currently only 17% of Americans got the last booster, which was the bivalent,” she says. Karan believes vaccine acceptance continues to be a complicated issue.

“I think that COVID fatigue could be one of the reasons, but the rate of vaccine uptake will depend on efforts from health care providers and public health departments to address the many reasons that people may not be confident in getting another vaccine,” he says. “And I do think that the COVID-19 pandemic will influence uptake around other respiratory infections, including flu and RSV [respiratory syncytial virus]. For some people, it may make them more likely to get all the vaccines, yet for others it may have the opposite effect.”

Parikh points out that it is unsafe to be tired of COVID. “People are not only getting sick, but we are also seeing hospitalizations,” she explains. “Even if you recover at home or do not have a severe form of the illness, it can still cause long COVID, which can be debilitating for years. Furthermore, you can infect a loved one who may be more vulnerable for severe forms of the disease as well.”

Karan advises people not to give in to the fatigue and instead to get vaccinated as soon as possible, rather than trying to choose the ideal time to receive the newly FDA-approved updated COVID vaccine booster shot. “It’s hard to predict when you may get sick,” he says.