The epidemic threshold of the susceptible-infected-recovered model is a boundary separating parameters that permit epidemics from those that do not. This threshold corresponds to parameters where the system's equilibrium becomes unstable. Consequently, we use the average rate at which deviations from the equilibrium shrink to define a distance to this threshold. However, the vital dynamics of the host population may occur slowly even when transmission is far from threshold levels. Here, we show analytically how such slow dynamics can prevent estimation of the distance to the threshold from fluctuations in the susceptible population. Although these results are exact only in the limit of long-term observation of a large system, simulations show that they still provide useful insight into systems with a range of population sizes, environmental noise and observation schemes. Having established some guidelines about when estimates are accurate, we then illustrate how multiple distance estimates can be used to estimate the rate of approach to the threshold. The estimation approach is general and may be applicable to zoonotic pathogens such as Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus (MERS-CoV) as well as vaccine-preventable diseases like measles.