Life in America — and in many countries around the world — is changing drastically. We’re physically distanced from our favorite people, we’re avoiding our favorite public places, and many are financially strained or out of work. The response to the Covid-19 pandemic is infiltrating every aspect of life, and we’re already longing for it to end. But this fight may not end for months or a year or even more.
We’re in this because public health experts believe social distancing is the best way to prevent a truly horrific crisis: perhaps hundreds of thousands or more if our health care system is overwhelmed with severe Covid-19 cases, people who require ventilators and ICU beds that are now growing limited in supply.
How long, then, until we’re no longer behind and are winning the fight against the novel coronavirus? The hard truth is that it may keep infecting people and causing outbreaks until there’s a vaccine or treatment to stop it. In time, we may learn how to balance the need to “flatten the curve” with the need to live our lives and revive the economy. But for now, it appears we’re in for a long haul.
The reason we may be in for an extended period of disruption, Kucharski says, is that the main thing that seems to be working right now to fight this pandemic is severe social distancing policies.
Drop those measures — allow people to congregate in big groups again — while the virus is still out there, and it can start new outbreaks that gravely threaten public health, particularly the older and chronically ill people, those most vulnerable to severe illness. “There’s no way [the virus] is going to go away in the next few weeks,” he says.
The way things are looking now, we’ll need something to stop the virus to truly end the threat. That’s either a vaccine (there are some now entering clinical trials but it could be a year before they are approved) or herd immunity. This is when enough people have contracted the virus, and have become immune to it, to slow its spread.
Herd immunity is not guaranteed. Currently, it’s unclear if, after a period of months or years, a person can lose their immunity and become reinfected with the virus (which would make achieving herd immunity more difficult). Also, herd immunity will come at the cost of millions of people becoming infected, and possibly millions of people dying. A sobering new report from the COVID-19 Response Team at the Imperial College of London underscores the need to keep social distancing measures in place for a long period.
It outlines two scenarios for combating the spread of the outbreak. One is mitigation, which focuses on “slowing but not necessarily stopping the epidemic spread.” Another is suppression, “which aims to reverse epidemic growth.” Suppression, which requires “social distancing of the entire population,” can save more lives and prevent hospitals from becoming extremely overburdened. But it needs to be maintained “until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more),” the report states. And it warns “transmission will quickly rebound if interventions are relaxed.” Make no mistake: Suppression comes at a huge cost to our society, economy, and perhaps even personal well-being.
President Trump so far has announced guidelines that call for social distancing and other measures for 15 days. Given the likelihood of the need for social distancing measures for weeks or months, public health authorities may need to strike a balance: What can they put in place that will prevent a huge wave of deaths but also make life a bit more manageable? Here, greater knowledge about the virus will help. Time will teach us what the right mix of social distancing measures are.
Scientists are still working out which groups of people — and in which locations — are the most likely to transmit the virus. If it turns out that children aren’t playing a big role in transmitting the disease, it could make some sense to reopen schools. Perhaps travel bans, which may prove to be ineffective, will be lifted. People still may be asked to telework, but restaurants may open back up with limited seating.