Coronavirus Waves May Require Social Distancing Policies Until 2022, Harvard Researchers Warn

BOSTON — Many Americans appear to be at odds on when to open up the economy, but if one thing is for sure, we all want the coronavirus pandemic to be over. It has disrupted our days, cost many of us jobs, and taken the lives of thousands of our friends, family, and neighbors. So, how long will the coronavirus be an ever present threat in our lives? According to a new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the answer to that question largely depends on how human immunity to the virus develops over the next five years or so.

With this in mind, researchers urge the need for comprehensive research on current population immunity trends. Moreover, is that immunity staying consistent or is it waning?

Working with the data available to them, the research team created a series of modeled projections of virus transmission rates in the future. They concluded that while current social distancing measures should be able to suppress most critical cases and ensure that hospitals aren’t overwhelmed, infections will almost assuredly rise once these restrictions are lifted. They believe social distancing measures will probably have to be intermittently re-applied until 2022.

As much as we all would love for the coronavirus to essentially disappear completely like its cousin, the SARS virus from 2003, most public health officials say this isn’t likely. Instead, the coronavirus will probably follow a seasonal pattern like influenza. But, to what extent? Will tens of thousands of Americans become critically ill with coronavirus symptoms every winter, or only a few hundred? It all depends on how immunity develops, and remains, among the general population.

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All in all, researchers believe the key factor that will determine how COVID-19 plays itself out over the next five years is how much viral immunity wanes from season to season and year to year. That being said, across virtually all of their simulated scenarios, virus cases always spike up after social distancing measures are removed. This is especially true in the fall and winter; if social distancing measures are loosened due to a drop in summer cases, it could set the stage for a major outbreak come winter time.

One predictive model even showed the virus staying active in the population into 2025. Now, an effective vaccine or drug combination can change these predictions for the better. If, however, no such treatment emerges within the next few years the study’s authors believe social distancing is going to have to be apart of our lives, even if just sporadically during colder months, until at least 2022.

“Our goal in modeling such policies is not to endorse them but to identify likely trajectories of the epidemic under alternative approaches,” the study reads.

The study is published in Science.

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