Even as cases of COVID-19 continue to fall nationwide, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the coronavirus is most likely here to stay — and that it could behave similarly to influenza.
“I do anticipate that this is probably going to be a seasonal virus,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told NBC News. That means it could join the flu and other respiratory viruses that tend to spread during the cold winter months.
The U.S. is averaging 49,569 new COVID-19 cases per day, according to an NBC News tally, a decrease of more than 54% over the past two weeks. COVID-related deaths are also falling, now averaging 1,533 per day, a reduction of about a third over the past two weeks.
Despite the positive COVID-19 trends, CDC officials say it is increasingly like that the virus will never truly go away, instead simmering at low levels and rising during the winter months.
“This virus will probably continue to circulate in our society, in our country, around the world for years to come,” said Dr. Henry Walke, director for the CDC’s Center for Preparedness and Response. “This next six months, the next year, will really inform us in terms of what living with this virus is going to look like.”
But, he added, he hopes the most recent surge, driven by the extremely contagious omicron variant, will be “the last real large surge from SARS-CoV-2.”
While CDC says that 90% of Americans can take off their masks at this time, Walensky can’t guarantee masks will be gone forever. That means that masks could one day make a comeback.
“I would say, put your masks in a drawer, anticipate you may need them again and hope that we don’t,” she said.
“We may want to be more vigilant during some seasons,” Walensky said. “Maybe during respiratory season, if things ramped up, we would want to put on our masks again to protect both from flu and from COVID-19 and from all other respiratory diseases.”
It’s also unclear whether Americans will need additional COVID-19 booster shots over the next year, she said.
The omicron variant continues to be the dominant strain of the virus detected in the U.S., currently accounting for more than 99% of new cases.
But the CDC is actively looking for new variants, analyzing tens of thousands of genomic sequences each week. At this point in time, the agency says it sees no evidence currently of new variants on the horizon.
Still, Walke said that he does expect to see additional variants emerge at some point in the future.
“This virus has surprised us again, and again and again,” he said. “We don’t know what the future holds.”
But, Walke added, if a new variant does pop up again, the nation is in a better position to react quickly by testing for it and reformulating vaccines, if necessary.
This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.